The TH Field Trip: Seventh Generation, Burlington, Vermont

The Seventh Generation gang, plus a couple of TreeHuggers, at the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont.


A few weeks ago, TreeHuggers Graham Hill, Nick Aster, and I stepped out of the airport into the damp Vermont air and into a maroon Toyota Prius that would chariot us to Seventh Generation HQ in Burlington, Vermont.

"I thought the Internet was dead until I saw you guys," said Gregor Barnum, an ethicist, philosopher, and generally cool dude in charge of corporate responsibility at Seventh Gen. We knew we liked him right away. And that was before he and his cohort, Duke Stump, (a.ka. chief marketing officer—a title he dislikes—may we suggest "chief of shaking things up"?) whisked us off to Seventh Gen's soon-to-be LEED Gold-certified offices, fed us a fantastic 100-mile dinner, and led us on a field trip to the amazing Bread and Puppet museum (check out the video).

During the next 24 hours, we were amply introduced into the world of Seventh Generation, the Vermont-based inventor, maker, and distributor of non-toxic and environmentally safe household products. (For more about household hazards, click here.) And I must say, it's a world I would certainly like to live in. We toured their corporate facilities (a contemporary, open-plan, eco-sensitive space overlooking Lake Champlain), met several staffers (from mad scientists to marketing gurus to sales reps) and played in the green hills of Vermont.

Here's what we learned: Seventh Generation is walking the walk. Our trio of TreeHuggers headed to the North Country to find out what these guys were all about, if we could lend each other a hand, and to talk story. I was thrilled to hear not a word of phony corporate speak, and no one was pushing an agenda or trying to sell us a story. This was more like meeting the goodwill ambassadors of the environmental movement—we instantly felt we were among like-minded people.



What Seventh Gen likes to call "corporate transparency"—that is, the idea of being openly accountable and responsible for everything they do, from customer care to manufacturing—translates into employees that are constantly questioning not only the world around them, but their place in it, too. The result? A curious bunch of thinking staffers constantly looking for better, more innovative ways to do things—whether it's launching a blog about feminine hygiene or developing cradle-to-cradle materials for their products. And guess what? These people appear to actually like coming to work every day.

"The minute you begin to do what you really want to do, it's really a different kind of life," Buckminster Fuller once said. I imagine that's sort of how Jeffrey Hollender felt when he founded Seventh Generation some 20 years ago. The company doesn't just provide alternative toilet paper, dish detergent, and diapers to a world that's desperately in need of them, it's a visionary example of how the world might be. It's a place where people think about what their actions and choices mean, where employees don't have to shelve their values when they punch the proverbial clock, and where they're not just allowed, but encouraged, to approach everyday tasks in new ways and question everything. Why? "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." It's a statement form the Iroquois Confederacy's Great Law, and the inspiration for the company's moniker.



Of course, encouraging people to ask lots of questions often accumulates more than can possibly be answered. Following suit, our visit generated more questions than answers. (Is the environmental movement really a movement at all? How do we make sure it's not a passing trend? How do we expand human consciousness? How do we create a capitalistic ethic that embraces profit yet eschews greed? Why do we have to work 40-hour-plus weeks? What is corporate responsibility anyway? Why don't we have intelligent mobility? How can dividends be more important than the air we breathe? Where should environmental responsibility start? With the government? Big business? Insurance companies? You and me? And just when exactly did human beings start to think of themselves as separate from the natural world?) After 20 years, it appears the conversation is both going strong and still just beginning.

That's refreshing, for sure. But still, Seventh Generation isn't a total anomaly. It's successful, has a staff of several dozen, and has to worry about real-life, corporate-America things like distribution, materials cost, packaging, branding, and salaries. That means they've got to pull a profit. But the difference is, they're doing it with an authentic conscience. Instead of sitting around a board room theorizing about what "corporate responsibility" means, Seventh Generation is jumping in, sleeves rolled up, and defining the term as they go along—all the while asking questions, building better products, educating consumers, and, of course, inviting TreeHuggers to visit and take it all in. Their marketing department is fond saying they prefer to build their customer base one person at a time. Well, I think they just added three more lifers to that list. ::Seventh Generation ::The Inspired Protagonist

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