hen Hollender and I meet in Seventh Generation's headquarters, such lofty thoughts are far from his mind. Instead, he's contemplating toilet paper. A dozen or so samples sit in his office, and Hollender is not happy about any of them. "Focus groups said our toilet tissue wasn't soft enough. We're trying to develop something better."
After having conducted some admittedly unscientific research on myself, I find this surprising. I want to tell him that his toilet paper is just fine. Maybe better than fine. It generally costs only a few cents more than leading brands and serves its purpose admirably. The same holds true for the Seventh Generation facial tissues, paper towels, dish detergent, and garbage bags around our house. True, a plastic tie once broke as I went to carry a kitchen bag downstairs, and the toilet paper might not be quite as squeezably soft as a nationally advertised brand, but the level of inconvenience is minor, especially when put in perspective. At this moment, vast swaths of boreal forest in Alberta, Canada, are being reduced to stumps and mud to manufacture, among other things, a particular product that you apply to a certain part of your anatomy for all of eight seconds a day.
But Hollender knows that none of this matters if his products don't sell to consumers like the woman in City Market, who aren't necessarily thinking about boreal forests when they tear off a sheet of toilet paper. "We need to make our bathroom tissue softer. The fibers in paper break during recycling and are shorter than those from virgin trees. The best comparison is your beard. The hairs are more bristly than the longer ones on your head," says Hollender. "It's better than it was five years ago, but it's not good enough. It's a real challenge that we face."
The "we" he's talking about are his roughly 24 employees, who work out of rented office space on the second floor of a building that originally warehoused ice cut in the winter from Lake Champlain. It has since been retrofitted in an industrial motif that wouldn't be out of place in the commercial district of any gentrified urban area: zigzagging hallways, iron railings and staircases, lots of exposed concrete and beams, skylights. My first impression is: Wait, this space is far too small and tidy. Where are the laboratories? The warehouses?
Hollender explains that the leanness is part of keeping a low-overhead operation. Seventh Generation is essentially a sales and marketing organization. Unlike similar businesses such as Tom's of Maine and Stonyfield Farm, Seventh Generation makes no products itself. Instead, Hollender and his staff generate ideas for new environmentally safe goods to fill niches. They start with a list of criteria that includes all the chemicals they will not use as well as performance standards and cost levels for the product. These specs are then tendered to independent companies, which develop formulations, which in turn are tested and evaluated by two chemists working in Seventh Generation's on-site laboratory.