The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win

By Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen

Reviewed by Michael Connor

I recall a business meeting years ago with a team from a computer software company.  The company’s CEO handed me a business card with his title: “Keeper of the Magic.”

Responsibility RevolutionNot many business executives have the wherewithal or courage to adopt that kind of work identity.  Jeffrey Hollender does.  As co-founder and executive chairman of Seventh Generation, the Vermont-based maker of natural household and personal care products, Hollender has dubbed himself the company’s “chief inspired protagonist.”

In that role, Hollender ranges far and wide developing Seventh Generation’s product, business and brand while also serving as a provocative and entertaining advocate for progressive values in business.  His new book, co-authored with Seventh Generation editorial director Bill Breen, seeks “to show that when companies shift their value proposition from selling desirable products to solving difficult social and environmental problems, whole new opportunities arise.”

The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win profiles some familiar brands generally associated with corporate responsibility and sustainability – Patagonia, Timberland, Organic Valley, Nike and Seventh Generation – and a few larger enterprises – including Novo Nordisk and IBM – to provide lessons in how to do the right thing genuinely and effectively.

It’s no simple task. “At too many companies, do-gooding claims are mere meeting pabulum – a way to burnish the brand, entice consumers, and shake off critics,” write the authors. “Those companies that are genuinely committed to doing good too often isolate their CR (corporate responsibility) departments from their operating units and so prevent them from influencing critical strategic decisions.”

Consumers are driving much of the change.  At Marks & Spencer, one of the U.K.’s leading retailers and a British institution, the head of corporate responsibility initiatives explains that in head-to-head battles with major competitors, “we’re never going to beat them on price.  But if we can drag them on to a battlefield that’s marked out in terms of trust and responsibility, we’ve got a chance of winning.”

As a result, Marks & Spencer managers brainstormed more than two hundred social and environmental issues that confronted the company and eventually narrowed the list to 100 challenges across five categories: climate change, waste, raw materials, fair trade and people.   The company developed what it calls a Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”), committed to fulfilling all 100 challenges by 2012, and placed a Plan A “champion” in each of its 600 stores.

Examples like that prompt Hollender and Breen to conclude that “moving forward, (corporate responsibility) will most likely become a baseline requirement in every company’s license to operate, but nothing more,” though they acknowledge that plenty of hard work needs to be done to accomplish that vision.

Hollender is at his best when evangelizing and encouraging the vision.  He likes to tell the story of how his company came to be called Seventh Generation, quoting from the founding document of the native American Iroquois confederacy: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”   Thinking like that would truly make for a responsible – and sustainable – business revolution.