IN THE BEGINNING there was the local co-op, oftentimes a dingy storefront on the wrong side of the nearest college town. Born of the counterculture ethos, these first lonely outposts on the “health food” frontier hardly seemed like the seeds of a megabillion-dollar growth industry that would eventually cut even the Jolly Green Giant down to size.
Yet here we are, in a brand new age in which “organic” is on everyone's lips and sales of whole-health products are an all-natural supernova exploding in stores across the land. We're marking the fifth anniversary of the National Organic Standards Act, and even the biggest boys on the food and supplements block are muscling in on the sustainable action — all of which has many who kept the faith from long before it was fashionable crying that true organic principles are being corrupted by countless bandwagon-jumpers who seem more interested in staking out market share than making a meaningful difference. The end, they say, is nigh.
It's a point worth discussing: Can progress and profits peacefully share the same shelf space? The short answer is they're going to have to, or soon there won't be any of either. But I think they can do more than merely coexist. I believe each can actually serve the other's interests. The success of our company, Seventh Generation, is proof that it's possible. Achieving this balance, however, means no more business as usual. It's all about new, once-heretical corporate notions like these:
Enter new markets for the right reasons. Yes, making money is important, but this is about the health of your customers and the world they want to live in, so do your homework and understand these priorities and the fact that health and wellness is both a lifestyle and a state of mind. That's the only way to earn customer loyalty and create a perception of product integrity.
Forget the myth that doing the right thing costs money. No matter what elements of sustainability your products embody — energy efficiency, reduced packaging, the elimination of toxic chemicals, fair trade, etc. — the benefits of making the right choices here will go right to your bottom line.
Be transparent. Don't hide your decisions or cover up the facts. Share them, along with all your triumphs and mistakes. The natural products industry was founded on honesty and authenticity. So publishing a corporate responsibility report is a must. But find new ways to tell your story, too. The Hannaford Bros. Guiding Stars program is a great example of innovative transparency.
You can't do this alone. To succeed in this new world you've got to bring your whole team along. Unless every employee from top to bottom is committed to understanding this market's purpose, essence and possibilities, your train will eventually derail.
Think like an organic farm. Organic agriculture is a systems approach to growing food, and you'll need a similar strategy to create a successful natural product or business. We've been taught to think in a very compartmentalized manner. In trying to solve problems, we often forget to deal with their root causes.
In and of themselves, these things won't automatically create a genuine natural product or a legitimate whole health company that can successfully merge its mission with the marketplace. But they do represent the kinds of things we'll all need to think about if we're to maintain credibility and compassion on the road to this better paradigm. The more people who make these ideas part of their formula, the healthier that paradigm will be.
Jeffrey Hollender is “chief inspired protagonist” of Seventh Generation, the nation's leading brand of natural home and personal care products. He is also the author of three books, most recently “Naturally Clean: Seventh Generation's Guide to Safe & Healthy, Non-Toxic Cleaning,” available through New Society Publishers.