An Interview with Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation Inc. & Sustain Natural

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Mamalode is very fortunate to have a good many mentors and advisors across the nation—people who take time to support us, as well as other entrepreneurs, and who give generously to the greater good. Jeffrey Hollender is one of those.

Hollender leads an impressive career as an entrepreneur, activist and author and is probably best known as co-founder and former CEO of Seventh Generation Inc., a Vermont-based all-natural cleaning and personal care product company, which has become a household brand name.

Earlier this year he took time to visit with Mamalode about media and brand relationships, and then later, about his new family business, Sustain Natural. Launched just over a year ago in partnership with his daughter Meika, who was recently honored by Levo League as one of a 100 millennials redefining the world, Sustain is the first non-toxic sexual wellness products brand in the U.S. Here are his views on sustainability, sex positivity and this exciting new endeavor.  

How did your time with Seventh Generation affect the business model for Sustain?

About 20 years ago, when I was still running Seventh Generation, I trademarked the name Rainforest Rubbers with the intention of someday creating a condom that was sustainably harvested in the Amazon. I was fascinated with the idea of using natural rubber trees that grew in the Amazon basin and employing the indigenous rubber tappers from that region. I didn’t revisit the idea until years later, when I was thinking about my next chapter and how I could build a business with an even deeper social impact than Seventh Generation had. Fair trade condoms fit the bill.

While at Seventh Generation I also developed the concept of a Net-Positive business. Sustain was designed to be one of the first Net-positive businesses. The Guardian newspaper described net positive this way: “Businesses have impacts on the environment and society. Some are negative, some positive. For a company to be net positive, the latter need to outweigh the former. To put it another way: The natural world and society should be better off with companies than without them … or so the theory says.”

Why market condoms to women? Do you think sustainable condoms can increase usage, especially among single women?

The condom industry historically markets exclusively to men and that has left women out of the equation. Working with my wife Sheila and my daughter Meika, we saw an incredible need and opportunity to insure that women were purchasing and using condoms; and also, importantly, a way to help women feel good about buying condoms. Even though women purchase 40% of all condoms in the U.S., only 19% of single sexually active women use condoms regularly, and a large part of this is due to the stigma associated with women and sex. We needed to provide products, services, and education that will empower women to be in control of their sexual health.

Today’s conscious shopper is buying natural skincare, fair-trade coffee, and organic produce, yet when it comes to sexual health products, most women don’t realize there’s a more natural alternative. Sustain is the only brand offering non-toxic, organic and all-natural products, and it’s clear that there’s a market for that now.

How do you balance goals to promote both sustainability and sex positivity? Have you had to make sacrifices for one in order to promote the other?

The pursuit of sustainability almost always requires compromises and tradeoffs. One compromise has been the use of a lubricant in our condoms that isn’t organic and made with renewable and sustainable materials. We decided to use silicone instead of a more natural ingredient because it’s the only lubricant currently approved by the FDA for use in a condom foil. To get approval for an organic lubricant would have caused about a 2-year delay to launch our product at a cost somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000. We will work to transition to an organic lubricant in the future, but decided that the other good work we were able to do immediately shouldn’t wait 2 years.

Why condoms? Why not focus on other products that misuse rubber, or other natural resources?

We chose to focus on condoms because of the huge opportunity to impact social and environmental issues at the same time. While tires use 50% of all rubber, and the transition to fair trade rubber would have a huge impact within the supply chain, it would not have provided us with the opportunity to address the wide range of social and behavioral issues that condoms address.

As a family operating a condom business, sex had to be often talked about. What kind of experience did you have teaching/learning about sex education, and do you think other families can benefit from seeing your family's communication style?

I’ve always believed in having open and honest discussions about sex. My wife Sheila and I did not shy away from having these conversations with our own children, and as a result, they felt comfortable coming to us for advice. I think the idea of trying to shield your kids from sex and sexuality is sending the wrong message – it’s making something that is natural, that is part of life, part of your health and happiness, feel dangerous and taboo. There needs to be a dialogue, and I urge other parents to have these open conversations with their children.

What has prompted your choices in who to donate 10% of your profits to?

This is a practice that I initiated at Seventh Generation back in 1999. The average business donates less than 1% of profits for philanthropic purposes. We believe that 10% represents what we consider best corporate practice. And Sustain’s 10%4Women program, focuses those donations on women’s reproductive healthcare here in the US.

There are 20 million women in the U.S. who lack access to reproductive healthcare services. We understand that we cannot solve major issues like access to reproductive healthcare on our own, so it’s critical that we enlist and support organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Breast Cancer fund in order to have the type of impact and reach that we want to have. It’s our way of giving back to organizations that paved the way.

Why did you choose to create the in•ter•course blog and do you think it's been an effective social media outlet for your company?

Even though we are selling safe sex products, we’re also, more importantly, trying to empower women to take control of their sexual health. Meika was critical in spearheading the blog and saw an opportunity to create a platform for women to have an open dialogue about condoms and female sexuality. It has been very effective as a social media outlet for Sustain, and instrumental in helping spread our message to consumers.

As a father, husband and an entrepreneur, is there anything else you want to share with Mamalode readers?

Yes. While our planet and society face ever-increasing challenges from social inequity to global climate change, we can change the dangerous trajectory we’re on. To do that, we must commit a much greater portion of our lives, energy and money to the “greater good.” We have the technology to solve most of the problems we face, what we’re lacking is the will.


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