The TH Interview: Gregor Barnum, Seventh Generation Director of Corporate Consciousness

Gregor Barnum is the Director of Corporate Consciousness at Seventh Generation, leading marketers of natural, non-toxic cleaning products and other household goods. Gregor holds a Masters Degree from Yale Divinity School with a focus on ethics. He is a firm believer in rethinking the way we do business, creating institutions that are actually a force for good. He kindly agreed to talk to TreeHugger about the work that Seventh Generation have been doing on envisioning the future of the company. In this interview he shares his thoughts on ethics, organisational change, biomimicry and green consumerism. We also learn a little more about what makes him tick as a person.

This interview was exerpted on TreeHugger Radio number 2, which aired October 12th on Air America's EcoTalk. To hear the show, and others, visit EcoTalk.net.

TreeHugger: We understand that Seventh Generation have been really busy with something called Unfolding the Future. Tell us a little about this project.
Gregor Barnum: I have never felt really challenged by other businesses as they always seem to be lingering in this morass, and I've been feeling like we're suddenly climbing up and looking at the world outside of this morass.

We've been doing two things at Seventh Generation that have been interesting. We've been working with a woman named Carol Stanford. With her we have been exploring how we can begin looking at the company and the world from a systems orientation. It's interesting to be able to come out of the linear world. To begin to, in some ways, inhabit many different levels of reality and be able to hold them at the same time. To be able to do business, product development, marketing and whatever else at a higher level of consciousness. You can stay in business in that very ongoing linear way, focussing on growth, and where the company is going to go in the next few years, or you can think "oh my God, how do we begin to think about the evolution of each one of our employees, about the evolution of our product line, about how we approach our customers and consumers?" We all of a sudden get a different sense of burn because we are actually thinking at a different level.

TH: From a systems perspective everything is connected, so how are you beginning to bring this all together within Seventh Generation?

GB: As another part of working with the systems perspective, we have begun talking to Peter Senge and his SoL Group [Society for Organizational Learning]. We went to a workshop this summer based on a book he recently came out with called Presence. One of the people who influenced my thinking a lot through the book was a guy called Otto Scharmer who helped write the book with Peter. He came up with this idea of "Theory U". It's hard to put in words exactly what this theory is all about, but if you can suspend your present, habitual thinking and begin observing on a different level. In other words how do you begin to ask the question "what is the essence of whatever it is that you are approaching?" And when you really get to these questions of essence you get really into this process of presencing — allowing your mind to begin to let the future emerge. Once you begin to get an inkling of what the next level of thought is, you move into this very strong prototyping idea.

The beauty of this idea links with what Buckminster Fuller once said, that the next revolution is a design revolution. We are all designers. We've got to be. We've got to be designing at a whole different level if we are going to move this world beyond the morass that it's in. Yet I've seen people at Seventh Generation all of a sudden grasp on to these ideas and say "oh my God, I'm getting these senses out there of this thing that is starting to emerge" but then it'll just kind of die. So, how do you actually get it to the prototype? People will say, "I'm not a designer, I don't have those kind of skills." But that's bull! It's important that people begin to see that they are actually designers and they can prototype.

TH: So through this process they actually have an investment in their future? They become co-creators of what that future is?

GB: Exactly. They not only become co-creators, but they also get this sense of collaborating with those around them. Who do they now need within this company, this organism, that can begin to see how this thing, this prototype can begin to take form? How can we take this process, not only to move the business forward from the stand point of its own growth, but also in terms of the impact that we, that's "we" as in Seventh Generation, want to have on the world around us.

This leads me to the final part of this Unfolding the Future process. We brought in Janine Benyus from the Biomimicry Guild. Biomimicry is about how we can begin to ask the question of "what is the essence of nature? What is the essence of the many different variables that nature has within her?" Biomimicry is about looking at the various different species that are out there, and looking at their functionality. It is about looking at ways that we can mimic that functionality in this world — "this world" meaning the product world or the human world — and in some ways begin to create from that level of design. Most of the designs we have in society, nature would not have created. You can look around the various things in your house and say "would nature have designed it like that?" One example of this would be that nature would never pollute herself. Nature has always figured a way to move 'pollutants from one process on to the next level, cleaning herself up, evolving herself.

Suddenly you start looking around at the entire plastic world that we're in and you see that nature has, in some ways, been taken out of all of this. Janine said to us that any one species or organism has very few known strategies, but there are hundreds of millions of species out there. This thought just opened up my mind. That's 100 million strategies that we could begin to look at to not only deepen our relationship with nature, but also to deepen our relationship with our children's children's children's children. You know, seven generations, if not more.

TH: Talk a little bit about that Seventh Generation precept for a moment.

GB: My graduate work was in ethics. Ethics is not this 'moral code'. It is not this Kantian idea of what you 'ought' to do. Ethics is a continual process of engaging with the present. What is, right now, the deepest part of bringing good into being? So the Iroquois Indians, who plaid a fairly strong role in the evolution of the US Constitution, devised this precept that you need to deliberate on the consequences of every one of your actions, seven generations down. And that's the whole concept of what we are slowly beginning to take on as a company. Think about that. Every little thing you did today. Can you think about the consequences of even the tiniest little action — what they would be seven generations from now? Think about the next time you do it, and then think about what the consequences might be. Think about it as a consumer. The minute you pick up something from the shelf, you're making an impact on the future.

TH: How do you incorporate those natural principles of biomimicry into your operations and product innovation?

GB: That's the next step. How do we begin to think about this? We've got the whole packaging thing we've got to look at. We've got to look at cleaning from a whole different perspective. What is the essence of cleaning? How does nature clean, and how can we now borrow from nature? Why are we still using spray cans? Is there a whole different way to look at the way we clean, and what we create in our closed system? We need to come at it from a standpoint of zero waste. How do we make sure that whatever we create moves back into the world in an earth-to-earth, or cradle-to-cradle, type of way?

TH: Closing the loop?

GB: Yes, closing the loop.

TH: One of the most inspiring things about Senge's work is the idea of structure creating behaviour. So much of what we see of Seventh Generation as a leader in the market place ties right back to the corporate culture. Is that something you actively cultivate in your role?

GB: I wish we were working on it more. I think this comes back to the ideas of the Presence book. Why are we working forty hours a week? Why do we have these things out there called weekends? And here's the really absurd thing, why are we 'doing' vacation? These all seem like very antiquated forms of really looking at what work is. Most people come in to work, working on or with only about 5% of who they really are. By that I mean only 5% of their being, of who their consciousness is, of who that is behind this face. And they work 40 hour weeks, and they look forward to the weekends, and you just have to accept that. You get 5% of the person. But really, the largest resource for any business is the human resource. So how do we move the level of consciousness in the business so people are working at a much higher level of who they are becoming?

TH: If these words were coming from someone else, they could easily be dismissed. But your position as leader in the competitive market place of natural cleaning products means that you set the trends. How do you reach that balance of really achieving the integrated bottom line?

GB: I think we still have miles to go before we really work in the way we can imagine ourselves working. How do we begin to ask the questions of what's going to be happening in the future? The future's got a whole load of unpredictable dynamics within it. Whether it comes from oil or water shortages, or climate change, these dynamics are going bring about, in a very interesting way, a whole new economy. How do you begin to look at that from a perspective of right now? Looking at the integrated bottom line, as you call it, can produce interesting metrics, but are they metrics that are going to keep you afloat ten years from now? I'm not sure yet.

We've had this interesting dialogue with Ceres, because we actually won the Ceres awards this year for the best corporate responsibility report. We put an immense amount of energy into this, but I don't think anybody read the damn thing! Certainly nobody said anything about it. So we won this award. We put all this money into this thing, and went to all this effort to create it, working in all the smiley faces and all that, and all of a sudden I'm thinking "why did we do that?" I looked at all the GRI [Global Reporting Initiative] data and I thought "how are we using this to meet a whole emerging future?" There's still, in my brain, a disconnect. I don't get how to use that data to meet or understand a future that is beginning to emerge. How can it help us switch the paradigm to the next level?

TH: Doesn't making a decision, like you just did, not to stock your products in Wal-Mart at the present time (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/05/walmart_seventh_generation.php), represent a shift in paradigm? You are showing that there is more to good business than getting your product in high-profile places.

I think that's right. But we are interested in staying in dialogue with Wal-Mart, and others. Because people can come back to us and ask questions about other customers who we sell to. There are equally important issues about who they are and what their social reputation is. They are just not in the limelight like Wal-Mart is. We've actually been in dialogue with Wal-Mart and they've been the most receptive of looking at moving towards a systems approach. They're taking on these incredibly deep tensions. I'm sure they're doing it out of a survival tactic on some level, but on another level it's almost as if they've got themselves religion. They want to be proud of themselves.

I just don't think it is a linear world. There are so many ways of looking at multiple layers of tensions, and people are always trying to find out "so what's the right thing? What's the good I can do in this moment? And how is that going to impact the world seven generations down? "

TH: How do you incorporate those ideas into an issue like Climate Change, which TreeHugger is working on with Seventh Generation? Where are we going to be seven generations from now if we don't turn things around?

GB: That's an interesting question. Let me turn the question back to you. Is this whole greenhouse thing symptomatic of a much bigger question? It's not just the CO2 that's the problem. Think about all the chemistries that are now in the environment and having a huge effect on our health. We don't even have a science right now that can measure what the long term effects are going to be of all these chemistries we are interacting with.

There's a danger that we really get on this CO2 thing, but we ignore that these other chemicals or processes we use are still problematic. It comes down to is deciding whether or not we are going use the same thinking that created the CO2 problem, to try to solve the CO2 problem. If we really open the lens, we start to understand that it is not just about CO2. It's ultimately about how hugely disconnected from nature we are right now.

TH: So there is always a danger that we replace one problem with another? Should we be looking at ideas that currently tend to get short-shrift such as, for example, consuming less?

GB: Consuming less, but also thinking in terms of what you are consuming. What is in that product you are buying? Where did it come from? Who does it impact? Did the palm oil come from some Malaysian plantation that is not treating its people ethically? There are all these intense questions that are inherently built in to our luxury of leading the life we actually lead. So how do we get that "big" in our thinking, without people turning around and saying "I can't handle it"? We just haven't yet developed the framework, whereby we can begin to see seven generations from now what the consequences of every single action might be. In my world, that's the deepest ethic you can get to. You are deciding in the moment what the most profound good is, because you have a deep understanding of what your impact is.

TH: It's fascinating to learn that you studied chemistry, and then went on to get your masters in ethics. What informs your worldview today? What shapes how you move forward in the world?

GB: Two things stand out. Firstly, my grandfather started a company called Rockwell International which, when I was a kid, was making a lot of the artillery and aeroplanes for the Vietnam War. It was really interesting paradigm to know that the blood that is flowing through you is part of that reality. And back then we would be out yelling the obscenities, and the revolution began. I learned very quickly that that kind of revolution will not get very far. It was interesting to really look at what our responsibilities are in terms of changing the earth. Because no matter what I said or did, I could not impact the company that was actually causing all this harm on the world.

The second thing, which has influenced me in a different way, is my son is severely autistic. He really doesn't have language. How do we begin to define, in the midst of our humanity, who this person is? I have to say, this person has been the deepest teacher I have ever had, and this is after going through 16 years of psychoanalysis, having been through many marriages, and trying to do anything I can to understand life. This kid has influenced me in profound ways as to how I can begin to look at humanity from a different level. There is so much beauty in a person, someone who a Yale med said had no IQ, who has allowed me to walk into a world which I feel is so much bigger than the tiny world I was in before, that I had thought was so large .

Even conversations, like the one we are having now, there's a part of you that uplifts me. There is a beauty in how, if you really find a way to dialogue with somebody, that you can listen to them and invite them to come with you on that journey, in that moment. There's a beauty in that, which I think we have to teach everybody. There is a lot in everybody that we need to meet on some level.

(Special thanks to TreeHugger intern Sami Grover for help with this post)

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