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Sustainable for Generations to Come

April 3, 2017

Despite a new owner, Seventh Generation is committed to changing the way household and personal care products are made.

Paul Polman is a man on a mission and a man with convictions. The Unilever CEO is convinced that the household and personal products industry must do a better job of protecting the planet if industry executives want to protect their own, and their children’s futures.
Polman also happens to be a man with deep pockets. In recent months Unilever has made a string of acquisitions including Living Proof, a premium hair care company, and Dollar Shave Club, a male grooming business. But it is the October, 2016 purchase of Seventh Generation that most neatly fits his goal of creating a sustainable business model.
Seventh Generation, a Vermont-based maker of plant-based household and personal products, is a pioneer in corporate responsibility. Company executives want Seventh Generation products to make a difference—from their development through to their production, purchase, use, and disposal.  Employees are always evaluating how to reduce their environmental impact, increase performance and safety, and create a more sustainable supply chain. Seventh Generation executives insist it is responsibility to set a course for a more mindful way of doing business, where companies act as partners with other stakeholders to create a brighter future for the whole planet.

“I liked their mentality to think seven generations ahead—that’s the mentality we need to solve the world’s problems,” Polman has explained in comments since the acquisition.

Since then, he’s told Seventh Generation employees to stick to their convictions, too. Martin Wolf, director of product sustainability and authenticity, Seventh Generation, recalled that soon after the acquisition, Polman addressed employees at their Burlington, VT, headquarters.

“His message was simple. Unilever acquired Seventh Generation because of whom we are. We should not change,” Wolf recalled.

Polman even went so far as to forewarn Seventh Generation employees that as the systems of the two companies were integrated, there would be pressure to change, to conform—and to not just give in.

“He urged us to resist that pressure and to ensure the integrated systems supported the mission and goals of Seventh Generation,” noted Wolf.

As it turns out, Polman’s warnings were proven justified, and there have been changes and there has been resistance, yet the Seventh Generation team has remained firm in its convictions, too.

“Overall, Seventh Generation’s abilities to fulfil its mission have been strengthened, and we look forward to offering more sustainable products while transforming the way all business is conducted,” observed Wolf.

Seventh Generation pushed the industry toward sustainability years ago. For more than a decade, Seventh Generation has worked with industry associations such as the American Cleaning Institute, and with business consortia such as The Sustainability Consortium and the American Sustainable Business Coalition, as well as with consumer and environmental advocacy groups like Ceres, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (formerly the Breast Cancer Fund), and Women’s Voices for the Earth, to effect change in the way the household and personal care industry conducts business, noted Chantal Bergeron, PhD, manager disruptive innovation and product development at Seventh Generation.

“Together, we have seen phosphates removed from automatic dishwasher products, online disclosure of ingredients in cleaning products, and beginning steps toward toxic chemical regulation,” explained Bergeron.

However, she noted that in the past few years change has become slower and more difficult, due to a few reasons.

“In part this is because we have harvested the low hanging fruit. In part this is because the political climate has become more challenging,” said Bergeron. “Regardless, Seventh Generation, its industry, and advocacy partners intend to advocate for continued change toward greater transparency, greener chemistry, and equity and justice throughout commerce.”
Crucial Victories…

Over the years, the cleaning product industry has had several victories, like eliminating phosphates from automatic dishwasher products, creating more biobased chemicals for use in consumer products, moving to disclose ingredients online, creating an online ingredient safety database, and eliminating a select few chemicals of concern. Many have removed phthalates from their fragrance ingredients, as well as alkylphenoxyethoxylates (APEs). 

“The industry is working in concert with associations to develop improved antimicrobials to replace those that are being phased out,” noted Wolf, but added that more work remains.

“The cleaning products industry needs to be more forthright and disclose ingredients, including fragrance ingredients and incidental chemicals of concern, on product labels and online,” he said. “The industry needs to increase the pace of phase-out of substances of concern, which will happen more rapidly if disclosed on label.”

Wolf also called on industry to develop broad spectrum antimicrobials, effective at high pH, to ensure product preservation. At the same time, companies must develop more sustainable packaging, both containing high levels of post-consumer recycled materials and in recyclable formats.

Meanwhile, Seventh Generation will continue to lead the way in its use of biobased materials in its cleaning products. According to Bergeron, on average, Seventh Generation products contain more than 90% biobased materials, as well as very high levels of PCR in its rigid plastic packaging.

“Our bottles and pumps are recyclable at a majority of locations, and most importantly, our price/performance is sufficiently comparable to conventional leading brands to attract and retain new consumers,” she explained.

But more work remains to be done. According to Bergeron, Seventh Generation has several goals for 2020:

• to have all organic ingredients bio-based and biodegradable, and all materials and packaging recycled and recyclable;
• to have all Scope 1 energy, plus our manufacturing and distribution energy, from non-fossil sources, or to offset all emissions from those sources;
• to eliminate the preservative methylisothizolinone (MIT) from Seventh Generation cleaning products (it was never used in SevGen’s personal care products);
• to continue to have all ingredients, including fragrance ingredients, on all product labels; and
• to see equity and justice throughout the supply chain as measured by the B-Corp Quick Impact Assessment.

“Of course, our larger goal is to see all companies pursue these goals,” she added.

Many of the changes that are taking place in the household cleaning category are happening as the consumer changes. Wolf explained that increasingly, consumers are seeing that they can’t be healthy if their environment is not healthy, and they are demanding greater transparency about the products they buy.
“Over the past several years, sales of ‘green’ products have grown at near double-digit rates while growth of conventional products has been relatively flat,” he concluded. “We certainly expect that trend to continue.”

Sustainable Cleaning Summit
Martin Wolf and Chantal Bergeron will be featured presenters at Organic Monitor’s Sustainable Cleaning Products Summit, which will be held May 2-3, 2017 in New York City. More info: