Seventh Generation Forecasts the Future of Business: The Responsibility Revolution (Book Review)

Responsibility Revolution book review photo

Image: Courtesy of Seventh Generation

Anyone interested in starting a green business or greening an existing business, or who simply needs a dose of optimism about the role that ethics and sustainability play in today's corporate world, should read the The Responsibility Revolution. In less than 200 pages, Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollander and editorial director Bill Breen, make their case that business can serve the planet and its people and still earn a profit—and that it makes good business sense to intentionally do so.They take you through examples of companies that have been doing it right from the start, such as Organic Valley Family of Farms, to more conventional companies, such as the UK retail chain Marks & Spencer and the Danish healthcare giant Novo Nordisk, that started to green themselves up for reasons from activist campaigns to market competition. The authors detail the history of the Marks & Spencer example really well, and it's interesting to learn how changes happened from the inside out, from making their clothing materials eco-friendlier to setting goals of zero waste and carbon neutrality in their stores.

The authors talk about the famously sustainability-conscious Patagonia, and what other companies like Timberland, Nike, and even Linden Lab (home to Second Life) are doing to incorporate ethics and sustainability into their infrastructure and product lines. It's 2010, so there's also a discussion of social networking, and how smaller models that are so far a booming success, like and Threadless, play into the picture as well.

The book is definitely targeted at business owners, managers, or leaders, but it's interesting for anyone wanting to know a little about how companies start to—or did, in cases like Patagonia—go green. And it's filled with useful facts for the non-business-oriented reader, such as Timberland learning that the company's greatest source of carbon emissions was coming not from transporting its goods, but from the cows used for its leather. It also contains some reflection on Seventh Generation's own operations, with an interesting story about how they managed to become such a household name in the U.S. (It wasn't by accident.) The development of an 'education' team in addition to the sales and marketing teams went a long way to creating demand for products they knew customers would want, if only customers knew about the toxins going into so many conventional products.

Hollender and Breen have a great chapter about transparency, and how companies that are up front about their weaknesses can use that as a tool for proving trust, rather than trying to conceal them, inevitably leading to suspicion. And they come clean—quoting a Treehugger interview with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard!—about the understanding that manufacturing anything, no matter how green, is going to be a net polluter to the planet.

They go through the different types of greenwashing, a common one being the "'hidden tradeoff,' whereby a single environmental attribute, rather than a holistic set of characteristics, is used to assert that a product is 'green.'" The book also sheds some light on questionable companies trying to create a green image, like the mighty suspicious GreenWorks line, put out by Clorox, which is simultaneously working on a Formula 401—a beefed-up version of 409 that, Hollander quotes, would be illegal in 12 states.

The book puts forth a great case, even if it seems a little utopian to try to translate the given examples into industry-wide trends. It might start out a little dry, but it picks up as you go and by the end, business owners might feel empowered to create change; casual readers might feel like a little more educated, a little smarter about environmental issues, and have a little hope restored in green business.

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The TH Interview: Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia (Part One)
Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender on "Big Green Lies" and Earth Day
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