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Clean 'n' Green

by Barry Estabrook

Seventh Generation's natural products are heading to a supermarket chain near you. Procter & Gamble, beware.

I have a strong suspicion this is one sale that Jeffrey Hollender is not going to make. The eyes of his potential customer have narrowed. Her lips are pressed together. And she is clutching her bottle of Fantastik as though it were pepper spray. Still, none of this stems the flow of Hollender's patter.

He and I are in a store called City Market. Hollender is there to buy a few bars of natural hand soap. I'm tagging along hoping to pick up some insight into the mysterious workings of the household product shelves, home turf to Hollender, who is president of Seventh Generation, a company that sells and distributes a wide range of environmentally friendly detergents, diapers, and paper products that use renewable, nontoxic, phosphate-free, and biodegradable ingredients. Outside in the parking lot, Hollender had given me fair warning: "No one in my family will go into a grocery store with me," he said. Now I know why.

In the retail world, City Market is a slightly awkward hybrid, part upscale gourmet emporium, part hippie-era food co-op, part conventional supermarket. The combination makes no sense whatsoever unless you understand the demographics of Burlington, Vermont, home to both City Market and Seventh Generation. Suburban moms in cropped leather jackets and designer jeans travel there in SUVs from lakeside estates to fill carts with fresh bread, artisanal cheeses, and $20-a-bottle Cabernets. They share the aisles with residents of the city's nearby Old North End, a hardscrabble working-class neighborhood, whose residents buy groceries at City Market because it's the only market anywhere near downtown. My guess is that Hollender's customer is one of the latter. She's in a pink sweat suit. Her hair isn't so much blown dry as shoved out of the way. And her face wears one of those shrewd, mildly disdainful looks that genuine Vermonters level at outsiders, or anything new.

Hollender launches his spiel after he watches his quarry pick up the Fantastik and mutter to no one in particular, "My son's got asthma. People are saying I shouldn't be spraying this stuff around the house." She was about to drop the bottle into her cart when Hollender grabbed another bottle of Fantastik and squirted some onto his hand. He sniffed and then extended his hand toward her. "Volatile organic compounds are what you are smelling," he says, putting back the Fantastik and taking down a bottle of Seventh Generation's Free & Clear All Purpose Cleaner. "No dyes. No fragrances," he says, handing her the bottle. "It's not petroleum based. There are no solvents." He's pointing to the ingredients label on his cleaner. "Your son has asthma? So does mine. And I wouldn't allow anything in my home from a company that doesn't put the ingredients on the label."

"Does this stuff work?" she asks, turning the Seventh Generation product over.

"I'm Jeff Hollender, president of the company. Take it home. Try it. If you don't like it, write me and say so. I'll refund your money.

"It's a good day," he says as she trundles away, her cart now containing a bottle of his cleaner.

Hollender has been having a lot of good days lately. His 15-year-old company, which lost more than $12 million during the late 1980s and 1990s, has finally turned the corner. In specialty stores like City Market, Seventh Generation rules. The shelves are awash in the company's green-leafed packaging on laundry detergents, dish detergents, glass cleaners, diapers, paper towels, tissues, toilet paper -- more than 50 items in all. The likes of Tide, Bounty, and Charmin have been pushed to the sides in favor of Seventh Generation's environmentally safe merchandise: cleaners that are made from vegetable oil, not petroleum; toilet paper and paper towels made from 100 percent recycled fibers and, more important, 80 percent "postconsumer" recycled fibers, meaning that they are made from material that was previously used by consumers and would otherwise have been dumped into a landfill had someone not placed it curbside in a blue box.

Seventh Generation has enjoyed phenomenal growth -- nearly 24 percent a year for the last five years, according to Hollender, which would put the company's current annual sales at somewhere around $25 million, though Hollender is uncharacteristically coy when it comes to revealing precise financial information about the privately held company. But he will say that Seventh Generation sells 69 percent of all toilet paper in natural foods stores, 74 percent of all paper towels, 42 percent of all laundry liquid, and 35 percent of laundry powder. Within four months of their introduction last April, his disposable diapers had become the best-selling brand.

As impressive as the company's performance has been, selling environmentally friendly products to customers of natural foods stores is the marketing equivalent of preaching to the choir. And the natural foods market is a small choir, selling perhaps $100 million a year in natural household products. The ultimate test of Hollender's mettle as a businessman began a few years ago when his products made their first inroads into the cutthroat world of major supermarket chains, which sell close to $18 billion worth of household products a year. "Strategically," he says, "it is where we need to go." Supermarkets now account for 30 percent of Seventh Generation's sales, up from virtually nothing a few years ago. Within two years, they will account for more than half of his business.

For the environment, the ramifications of Hollender's grabbing a larger share of this vast market are enormous. To cite just one example, Hollender estimates that in a 10-year period his recycled paper products saved 105,000 trees. But if every household in the United States replaced just one roll of 70-sheet virgin-fiber paper towels with 100 percent recycled towels, 544,000 trees could be saved.

It's not a stretch to wonder what the impact would be if Seventh Generation's growth prompted multinational behemoths like Procter & Gamble, with yearly sales of $43 billion, to respond by devoting even a modestly larger portion of their resources to produce ecologically sensible cleaners and paper products. Could the marketplace reach a tipping point? Could environmentally safe household products make the same leap into the mainstream that organic foods made a decade ago?

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Barry Estabrook is a contributing editor at Gourmet.

Photo: Mark Hooper

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council