Jeffrey Hollender is an American entrepreneur, author, and activist. He is known for his roles as co-founder and CEO of Seventh Generation Inc., a distributor of all-natural cleaning, paper, and personal care products. Hollender is also the co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council, a nonprofit advocacy group working to promote sustainable policy ideals, and is an author of books on sustainability.
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I am also Adjunct Professor of corporate sustainability and social entrepreneurship at New York University and I've also written 7 books - most recently, “Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning & Greening the World You Care About Most.”
I'm also a former Chair and a current member of the Greenpeace US Board of Directors as well as co-founder and Board Chair of the American Sustainable Business Council, a coalition of 200,000 business leaders committed to progressive public policy.
I'm looking forward to taking your questions about anything and everything. Victoria's helping me out today.
Update: Thank you for taking the time to ask me questions. Feel free to continue to ask questions and we will check back over the next few days. Looking forward to continuing to engage with the reddit community - in the meantime, please check out http://sustaincondoms.com/product/2for1-sustain-condoms/
What inspired you to start your own business?
So I started my first business when I was 19. I had dropped out of college, and never really thought about wanting to be an entrepreneur. I read a book by an educator named Ivan Illek, and in his book, he described something called "Skills Exchanges." And his idea was that we could have many more teachers and many more students if we didn't limit education to formal schools & universities. And his idea was to take anybody who had something to teach, and match them up with anybody who wanted to learn. And i just LOVED the idea, and naively said "Wow, that's cool! I want to try to make that happen."
So that was the birth of my first business. the Skills Exchange of Toronto, back in 1976.
Once you experience working for yourself and having your own business, it's almost impossible to go back and work for somebody else. So that first business, 4 businesses ago, led to a lifetime of being a social entrepreneur.
Most recently, after leaving Seventh Generation, I was trying to think about how to create a business that could have THE MOST positive effect on society & the planet possible. And the idea was to create what we call a "net positive" company - a company that has a more positive effect on society and the planet than it has negative affects. Many green services create products that are less bad than competitive products. Sustain Condoms was inspiring because of all of the positive ways it could impact the farmers, and rubber tappers - so we were able, through fair trade, to create better livelihoods for families that worked on our plantations. And the experience of knowing that thousands of kids were not only going to school but also college because we were supporting Fair Trade labor was very exciting.
By adding to that, a product that was made in a sustainable fashion, a product that helped women and families better plan when they want to have kids - planned families result in better education for the children, less hunger, and importantly, less Co2 emissions and less climate change. So what was so compelling for us about the idea of Sustain was how many positive influences we could have through this very simple little product.
how do you make such awesome diapers? my first kid got a rash from pampers and the doctor said try the old way of no diapers. we tried Seventh Generation diapers and the rash went away
It's just important to note that I am the co-founder and former CEO of Seventh Generation, so I haven't been there for about 4.5 years. However i'm still a significant investor in the company.
I think the reason people love Seventh Generation diapers is absence of perfumes, absence of dyes, no chlorine is used in bleaching - that eliminates ingredients & chemicals that cause rashes on SOME children.
Seventh Generation always strives to make the most sustainable products they can, and they think about sustainability both as it affects the environment and as it affects the people who are using the products. So being sustainable isn't just about saving trees or preventing climate change. It's just as much about making products that are healthier, or safer, for people.
Do you prefer using your products or others?
Well, I think most people who have created their own line of products do prefer to use their own products. I think that there is something a little suspect if you've created a line of products that you don't prefer using. Now, with that said, 20 years ago when Seventh Generation created its first laundry detergent, the truth is that it didn't clean very well and cost more money than other laundry detergents. And it was a challenge getting my family to use it. But over time, we dramatically increased the performance of the product so it worked as well or better than other leading brands. And nowadays we use it exclusively - you won't find anything other than Seventh Generation at our home, other than Sustain.
Why would a business leader commit to "progressive public policy?"
Shouldn't business leaders stick to making profits and leave governing to people in government?
You know, that's a great question. And I think that there's a lot of people who think that business should be separate from public policy and government. Unfortunately, public policy and government is so integrated with business that they really are impossible to separate, and I'll give you a couple of examples.
At Seventh Generation, we were in the business of selling paper products made from recycled fiber.
The government spends about $1 Billion a year subsidizing virgin timber.
That subsidy artificially lowers the price of products made with virgin fiber, and in comparison, products made from recycled fiber are more expensive.
So here you have one of THOUSANDS of examples where government programs influence the price of products that consumers purchase.
Businesses like Seventh Generation and Sustain need to be active from a public policy perspective to make sure there's at least a level playing field so that government programs don't create preferences for competitive products, particularly if those competitive products are not as responsible or sustainable.
We live with the myth that there is such a thing as a "Free market" and there is no such thing. Government programs influence the price of almost every product and service you purchase. The way those government subsidies are designed favors certain businesses and disadvantages other businesses. So it's not advisable or strategic to say we're gonna ignore those government policies, because they may not only put your business at a disadvantage but they may also make it harder for you to be competitive and profitable.
What do you think sets your products apart from others?
So Sustain Condoms specifically have a number of unique features and benefits. First of all, very importantly, they are designed to appeal to women. In our opinion, there really isn't a condom brand that has created a line of products specifically to appeal to women.
Beyond that, we're the only brand in the U.S. that is certified to be fair trade, which means the workers in the rubber plantations are not only paid a fair wage but a premium wage, and their kids get free healthcare and free education. The plantation we use is also certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which means it operates at the highest level of sustainability - limiting the use of pesticides, and protecting the biodiversity of the plants and animals living on the plantation.
The product Sustain is also certified to be vegan, not tested on animals, free from GMOs, and we are a B-corporation (a benefit corporation) which means we are committed to not just serve our investors but also our customers, employees, community and the environment.
How are your condoms better than L brand condoms? L brand being my current go to jimmy hat,i haven't used Trojan or durex save for emergency in years.
So, generally Sustain doesn't want to say anything negative about any competitive products.
What we DO know is that L is not certified to be fair trade, or forest stewardship council certified. And I'm not sure if they are a B-corporation. So we think L is a great company, but we think that fair trade & certified sustainability as well as being a B-corporation are important attributes that our customers feel are important when deciding what condom brand to use.
And I think if you bring Sustain condoms home, that your companion will love the design and the packaging. And if you visit the website, you will be engaged in the dialogue of what is happening, particularly Intercourse, our blog that highlights successful women and provides interesting information and education on the whole area of sexual well-being.
Out of all the things you have been involved in, what are you most proud of?
Wow, that's a great question.
I think the thing I'm the MOST proud of is not so much what we've accomplished at Sustain or Seventh Generation, but that we have been a model for business that has been inspirational to thousands of young entrepreneurs. And whether i'm lecturing or teaching, probably the thing that is most fulfilling to me is the way we've inspired other entrepreneurs to go out into the world and create businesses that create a positive contribution to society and the environment.
And if we look at the impact we've had, it's small in comparison to the impact that's been created by all the entrepreneurs that we've inspired.
How do you confirm that materials are post consumer?
Well, it's critical that we as consumers and we as businesses choose to support products & materials that are post-consumer. By using post-consumer waste, we are keeping material out of landfills, but equally or more important, if we make a paper towel from post-consumer paper, we use less water, very importantly we use LESS energy, so we reduce the amount of Co2 that is emitted that contributes to climate change - so they're critical factors that support the use of post-consumer materials wherever you can find them.
Almost any supplier should be able to offer you 4 types of material:
Where are sustain products available other than over the Internet?
Sustain Condoms are available on our website, http://sustaincondoms.com, as well as on other online retailers like Amazon (although we offer free shipping on our website!)
They are also available in retailers such as Pharmaca, Harris Teeter, Fred Meyer, PCC, Earthfare, Whole Foods in New York City, Ingles, and HealthNuts (also in NYC).
And if you live where we do, in Burlington, VT, you can find them at Healthy Living and City Market.
I'm sure you get asked this fairly regularly but what's it like working on a condom company with your daughter? Any awkward moments? Anything you were surprised to learn?
That is, indeed, a frequently asked question.
And while there are the occasional awkward moments, in general, the reason that we're able to do this together is because of our family and our family values that have always encouraged an open and honest dialogue about sex.
I think that Meika and I can model what we think would be beneficial for so many other families around the world - and that open conversation and the ability to ask questions provides particularly young men & young women with the information they need to make responsible & healthy decisions about their own sex lives and helps them be smart and safe and protect themselves from the growing risk of diseases like STIs and STDs as well as AIDs and unwanted pregnancies.
My favorite snack - that's an easy question, because I'm on a perpetual low-carb diet. So I've found these wonderful pistachio nuts that are taken out of the shell for you, and they are always in my briefcase. They are called WONDERFUL pistachios.
That's a really cool story, thanks for sharing it.
Follow up: What aspect of owning your own business do you like best? What aspect do you dislike most?
My favorite aspect of owning my own business (and now I'm in a unique situation because I'm in a family business, working with both my daughter & wife) is that I get to work with my most favorite people every day.
You use your time the way you want to use your time. You set your own priorities. And at the end of the day, you have no one to blame if things work out except for yourself.
I have always loved that I could be the master of at least part of my own destiny. And I like the accountability that i have to myself and of course to my investors & employees & customers. But once you spend your life as an entrepreneur, you also realize that you become totally unemployable by anybody else. Because I've been spoiled and fortunately never got used to having someone else tell me what to do.
Of course, we could just remove government from the business of business and avoid all of this lobbying for preferences. But then who would fund all those expensive campaigns?
We need government to be involved in business to create a level playing field.
And to help ensure that businesses behave in the best interest of both their consumers & employees, and not just the best interest of their investors.
I do, however, believe that money & donations should entirely be removed from the political process and all campaigns should be funded publicly.
As you moved from paper products into condoms, what were you surprised to find out about the birth control category or about sexual health?
It's been an eye-opening experience, and I'll share 3-4 things that have been the most surprising.
First is that only 21% of sexually active single women actually USE condoms.
That leads to the statistic that 25% of freshmen women end up after their first year in college with some type of STD.
In addition, in America, 50% of all pregnancies are not planned.
So clearly, we need to do a better job of education around birth control and condoms, AND I think related to the question earlier about what it's like tons ell condoms with my daughter - we live in a society where these issues of sexual wellness are NOT discussed openly or adequately in school, or between doctors and patients. And they lead to the kinds of painful statistics that I cited earlier.
So being in the condom business is as much about education and changing behavior as it is about selling condoms.
My background is primarily in sustainability, and it was really my daughter and business partner Meika who had the insight to see the opportunity in creating a brand focused on women. She knew that her & her peers never found a condom brand that appealed to them and spoke to them.
And because we knew that 40% of condoms were purchased by women, Meika saw a white space & an opportunity to position a brand that was focused on women.
If you could change one thing about the condom industry what would it be? Removing a consumer misconception? Banning a specific product or compound from being used? Something else?
Well, the biggest complaint that people have about condoms - and specifically what MEN have - is that they reduce to a certain extent the pleasurability of the sexual experience.
Last year, the Bill Gates foundation introduced a contest to redesign condoms to make them more pleasurable for men to use.
We've seen some great ideas come out of this contest, and I look forward to these new condom designs making their way into the marketplace over the next 3-5 years.
The other thing that would be most critical to change really is a more educated and informed public that understands the risks they take by not using condoms.
I think the AIDS epidemic brought more attention to the importance of condoms because the disease was life-threatening than the STI crisis we are now facing.
what is your mantra?
Well, I have a mantra that I always have taped to the front of my computer & it changes from time-to-time. Right now it says "reflect, speak the truth, and have fun."
I would add that my all-time favorite mantra is Mahatma Gandhi's saying "We must be the change we want to see in the world."
What's your favourite fact?
Most of my favorite facts are somewhat depressing. Right now i have been very focused on the issue of income inequality in the United States. And a fact that is amazing to me is that less than 1% of the population of the United States controls over 50% of all of the wealth.
But I'll give you a couple more facts.
Another fact i find distressing is that the average CEO at a Fortune 500 company makes 500 times what the average employee makes.
And lastly, in America, 1 out of every 6 people relies on food stamps.
I can give you a lot more if you want.
I was just on your website and it says that 10% of the profits of Sustain condoms goes towards womens' causes. What types of causes specifically do you support? Thanks!
Thank you for the question. 10% of our profits support organizations dedicated to improving access to women's reproductive healthcare in the U.S. Organizations we worked with already are Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Breast Cancer Fund.
As we grow we will continue find new partners that can help further our mission to increase access to and education about women's reproductive healthcare.
How often do you get laid?
Sustain really isn't the kind of brand that is about the founders (or our staff) talking about our sex lives. We want to talk about ways in which we can improve condom use, how we can overcome the uncomfortable feelings that some people have when they go into a retail store to buy condoms, but if the information doesn't serve our mission and our goals - we generally speaking don't find value in talking about things purely for entertainment.