From The Organic Report, Fall 2011
By Jennifer Rose
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is defined differently at different companies. At some, it means compensating employees for taking public transportation or riding their bikes to work. At others, it means donating products or resources to charities. At still others, it means taking steps to reduce the environmental impacts of production.
At Seventh Generation, a Burlington, VT-based household products manufacturer, CSR is not a single initiative. It is a principle woven through every element of the company, from the way products are produced and packaged to the way the company communicates with consumers. As Ashley Orgain, Corporate Consciousness Manager at Seventh Generation, notes, “CSR is baked into everything we do.”
That has been the case since 1988, when the company’s founder, Jeffrey Hollander, set out to create a new model for doing business. He wanted to demonstrate that, contrary to popular assumption, operating a business in a socially and economically responsible manner did not have to mean compromising profits. On the contrary, Hollander believed, sustainability and profitability could go hand-in-hand.
Thus began Seventh Generation’s mission to “inspire a revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations,” as well as its Corporate Consciousness program. This program is structured according to a triple bottom-line framework, in which success is measured not only in terms of profits, but also in terms of social and environmental impact. As Orgain explains, “From our standpoint, a healthy business goes beyond healthy profits. It includes healthy products, healthy communities, and a healthy environment.”
Over the last 23 years, the company has held true to its mission and the tenets of this program. As part of its commitment to producing healthy products, Seventh Generation has reformulated its products and retooled its packaging to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, improve efficiency, increase use of recycled materials, and eliminate the use of toxic ingredients in the supply chain. It has also developed product scorecards, which, according to the Seventh Generation website, give the company’s research and development team “an objective scoring system for comparing different materials and product formulations to foster sustainable decision making.” Additionally, the company has established closer relationships with its suppliers and manufacturers to ensure that their decisions and actions are consistent with Seventh Generation’s mission and values.
Per the Corporate Consciousness model, Seventh Generation has also made investments in improving the lives of communities and its employees. It dedicates ten percent of its pre-tax profits to non-profit organizations “working for positive change.” At the same time, it has made volunteering in communities a priority. The company offers its employees 16 hours of paid time off annually to volunteer in the community. Additionally, the company enables its employees to be more sustainable in their non-work lives by making loans available to those seeking to improve energy efficiency in their homes or purchase hybrid vehicles.
While such investments have come at a price, they have not stopped Seventh Generation from growing its profits. On the contrary, they have helped the company cut costs and build its financial bottom line. In Orgain’s words, “We have shown that doing right by employees, communities, consumers, and the planet is not only financially doable, but, at least in our case, critical to financial success.”
The company shows no sign of retreating from its position on CSR. If anything, its work in this realm is intensifying. By 2012, it plans to offset its corporate electricity use by installing solar panels on a local primary school. By 2020, Seventh Generation intends to have all of its plant-based products be composed of 100 percent renewable materials, and aims to completely cease sending product and packaging-related plastic waste to landfills and incinerators, as well as reduce its greenhouse emissions by 80 percent.
“These are aggressive goals,” Orgain notes, “but we are optimistic about our ability to achieve them.”
Given the strength of Seventh Generation’s commitment to effecting positive social and environmental change through business, it is hard to disagree.