Celebrating and critiquing 30+ years of sustainable business
Established in 1988, the Burlington, Vermont based company is on a mission to transform the world into a healthy, sustainable, and equitable place for the next seven generations. Distributing products to natural food stores, supermarkets, mass merchants, and online retailers across the world, we believe our products are healthier solutions for the air, surfaces, fabrics, pets and people within your home—and for the community and environment outside of it.
As a pioneer in corporate responsibility, we want our products to make a difference—from their development through to their production, purchase, use, and disposal. We are always evaluating how to reduce their environmental impact, increase performance and safety, and create a more sustainable supply chain. We believe our products set a course for a more mindful way of doing business, where companies act as partners with other stakeholders to create a brighter future for the whole planet.
The Early Years
In 1988, Niche Marketing, a small mail-order fulfillment firm in Burlington, Vermont, received an unusual gift: a free mail order catalog. By this we don’t mean a copy in their mailbox. We mean an entire catalog operation called Renew America, which offered energy-, water-, and resource-saving products and was on the verge of failure. Rather than close it forever after a failed attempt to sell it, Renew America’s owners gave the catalog away to Niche Marketing founder, Alan Newman, who was already handling its customer service.
The good people of Niche Marketing didn’t know quite what to do with their unexpected hand-me-down. But when an employee suggested changing its name to one inspired by the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee, an ancient Iroquois document, which declares that “in our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations,” a new company called Seventh Generation was born.
With a better name, a new look, and an enhanced mix of products, the catalog seemed poised for success in an increasingly environmentally aware world. All it needed was a little green of the monetary kind. Enter Jeffrey Hollender, a successful entrepreneur from New York City and author of How to Make the World a Better Place, who offered to become Alan’s partner and secure some much-needed financing.
From Catalog to Warehouse
In early 1992, Alan Newman permanently left the company after a 6-month sabbatical. Both Newman and Hollender had been harboring different ideas for the future of the company and what it meant to run a socially conscious business. Several waves of cost-cutting and unhappy layoffs later, things finally stabilized, and our accountants were relieved to find the company breaking even. Yet a need for cash persisted, and to raise it, Seventh Generation issued a $5 per share public stock offering in 1993.
However, with the enormous costs of running a public company piling up, Hollender needed cash. He made one of the hardest decisions yet – selling the catalog business to Gaiam, Inc., a new company started by Jirka Rysavy, founder of office supply behemoth Corporate Express, who showed up at our offices to inspect his new acquisition in disguise due to fears his investors wouldn’t approve of the purchase. With the catalog gone, we were free to focus on nurturing our wholesale brand and chart a path to lasting sustainability of a financial nature.
In 1999, bolstered by growing success and on the advice of the board, we made our smartest move yet and bought back all our stock to protect our company from hostile takeovers that could have diluted if not destroyed our mission. The offering was well-timed—sudden dramatic growth in the natural foods industry was fueling our wholesale business.
The New Millennium Brings Major Growth
The new millennium dawned with a sea-change in consumer lifestyles and a new emphasis on healthy living that triggered an explosion in the natural products and organic food industries. Though it came a decade later than we thought it would, this emerging concern about personal health was just what we were waiting for, and we changed our tag line from “Products for a Healthy Planet” to “Safer for You and the Environment,” in order to more naturally reflect our products’ renewable promise to provide solutions to the problems caused by conventional household products.
The next few years saw continued double-digit sales growth, and introductions of revolutionary new products like our Free & Clear line, our essential oil-scented products, our natural hand wash, and our botanical disinfecting cleaners. We also upgraded most of our existing formulas and made some trend-setting packaging changes—including the world’s first product container made from 96% post-consumer plastic, and the only bottle on Earth made from (no kidding!) 100% recycled paper and cardboard.
A Force for Sustainability
As the decade unfolded, we also launched a series of initiatives to make the world a better place. These included our 2006 Tampontification campaign, which encouraged women to talk about feminine care issues and donate needed supplies to women’s shelters, and 2009’s Million Baby Crawl, which rallied support for toxics legislation in Congress. We helped engineer an industry-wide ban on polluting phosphates in dishwasher detergents and in 2009 announced our industry’s first sustainable palm oil initiative, a program aimed at changing the harmful ways this natural resource is obtained.
In 2009, change came to our boardroom as well when Jeffrey Hollender stepped aside as CEO to focus on our long-term sustainability goals, and former PepsiCo division president Chuck Maniscalco joined us to take the reins of day-to-day operations. In 2010, Jeffrey left the company completely and became the nation’s leading spokesperson for corporate responsibility. Soon thereafter, Chuck made the decision to depart as well and in early 2011, former Burt’s Bees CEO John Replogle came on board as our new CEO.
Innovation and Advocacy for the Next Seven Generations
With sustained consumer interest and growth in the natural products space, Seventh Generation continued to constantly innovate its product line, and in 2011, we were the first North American company to launch our ecological bottle – made of 70 percent recycled cardboard and 30 percent recycled newspaper, complete with a recyclable plastic pouch inside. Following our commitment to ingredient quality and human health, in 2012, Seventh Generation became the first full line of household and personal care products to feature the USDA Certified Biobased label.
These strides continued across all categories: in baby care, our diapers were the first certified by FSC in 2014, and we committed to introduce 100% of our suppliers to the B Corp assessment. The same year, the Vermont Toxin Free Families Act was passed with the assistance and hard work of our mission and advocacy team. 2015 also brought about our adoption of an internal carbon tax, re-invigorating our commitment to climate work and our mission.
In Partnership with Unilever
In 2016, Unilever acquired Seventh Generation. With the support and global platforms of Unilever, Seventh Generation has the potential to provide our products to billions of consumers worldwide who are in search of green and natural options.
Following the 2016 acquisition by Unilever, John Replogle stepped into a new role as Chairman of the Seventh Generation Social Mission Board. Joey Bergstein, former CMO of Seventh Generation took on the role of CEO and continues to lead us today. As Bergstein puts it, Unilever is “not only committed to boosting our shared social and environmental mission, they’re giving us new power to achieve it.”
Since joining Unilever, Seventh Generation has continued to push the envelope and develop cutting-edge plant-powered formulations and advocacy work committed to changing the world. In 2017, our new line of botanically-based disinfecting sprays allowed consumers to disinfect their homes using a formula based on thyme oil, which kills 99.99% of bacteria and viruses. 2018 brought about one of our most innovative products yet – EasyDose Ultraconcentrated Laundry Detergent. Made with 60% less plastic and 50% less water than the standard 100oz bottle; our smaller bottle is the first of its kind and looking to permanently disrupt the laundry category.
Our advocacy work has continued and we work tirelessly on policy in support of systematic change. In 2017, we helped pass California’s groundbreaking Cleaning Products Right to Know Act, and followed it in 2018 by working with the Sierra Club to get 108 cities commit to 100% renewable energy by 2030. To top it all off, just this year, Seventh Generation Foundation Grantee PUSH Buffalo, along with a coalition of other organizations, helped New York State pass the most ambitious emissions standard in the country – the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The path is only upward from here.
We’ve come a very long way from the tiny mail order catalog that gave us our name and the handful of employees who planted the seed that would one day grow into a whole new kind of company making a much different kind of product. Ours has been and continues to be a remarkable journey. And we can’t wait to see where it takes us next.