We have to remap our minds, says Hollender

1st August, 2012 by Anna Simpson

Jeffrey Hollender, Founder of the American Sustainable Business Council and NYU Distinguished Fellow in Leadership and Ethics, tells Anna Simpson why sustainable solution number one has to be a new way of thinking. 

Jeffrey Hollender has pioneered sustainable business in the US, racking up awards and appointments – most recently, Distinguished Fellow in Leadership and Ethics at the NYU Stern School of Business. Born in New York, he made his name in the 80s as co-founder of Seventh Generation – a multi-million dollar non-toxic cleaning products company, recently named "the seventh most responsible brand in America" by an independent study. He went on to found the American Sustainable Business Council, a coalition of more than 200,000 business leaders, entrepreneurs and investors "committed to public policies that support a vibrant, just, and sustainable economy".

Today, Hollender sits on the board of directors for ASBC – as well as for Greenpeace USA, the labour rights non-profit Verite, and the Environmental Health Fund. If anyone is well-placed to point out the way forward for sustainable business, in the US and globally, this man is. His vision for a better world is set out in six books. A lot of words for a message which is alarmingly simple: that we must try to understand how everything in life is connected, and use this understanding to be a positive force. Of course, if it were that easy, we'd be making better progress. So, in a recent conversation, I asked him what's getting in the way, and what we should do about it.

Corporates have led the way on sustainable solutions, investing in research and innovation. But in your sixth book, 'The Responsibility Revolution', you say that this isn't enough. Why?

When you look at the health of the planet – from fish stocks to water shortages – it's clear that all the positive changes we are making haven't turned around the trajectory of resource depletion. They have simply bought us more time. So, now there are two things we can do. We can prepare for the negative consequences. Or, we can shift our thinking towards regeneration and resilience. We have to do things that are good, and not merely less bad.

But first, we need to know what doing good looks like. Unfortunately, we have mental frameworks which prompt us to look at individual attributes (fair trade, organic and so on) as opposed to seeing a more holistic picture. And we have created entire systems that incentivise progress in one area, without asking how it will bring us closer to wider goals.

Take ethanol, for example. Thankfully, we are ending ethanol subsidies in the US, but we approached it as if anything you make from vegetables is good! We didn't look at the energy it takes to produce ethanol, or at food prices. We set about promoting a technology with large negative impacts. Government regulations are designed around specific attributes and concerns, instead of wider strategies and visions. Of course, there are sophisticated ways of looking at impact in the round, such as life cycle analysis. But these don't govern the way consumers think, the way businesses operate, or the way governments makes decisions. [So] we have to start a new conversation. We have to ask how we can do things that are net positive.

It's an attractive idea: a world in which businesses actively boost our societies and ecosystems. Are there any examples out there?

The example I keep coming back to is the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, Ohio. It's a group of for-profit companies – in solar energy, urban food and laundry – which aim to bring wealth into the community. Each company is owned by its employees, and this cooperative structure prevents assets leaking away to a concentrated group of wealthy individuals and businesses. The employees can choose to up and leave, but they can't take their shares away with them. The group was set up in 2010 by the grant-making Cleveland Foundation, the City Government, and 'anchor' institutions, including hospitals and universities. Local initiatives like this one make me feel most optimistic now. It's much easier to remain aware of the negative – and positive – impacts of anything you do when they show up in the community where you work!

So the Evergreen Cooperatives do good by generating local wealth. But to what extent is wealth something to aim for?

Growth is critical. But we live in societies that have become obsessive, wealth-concentrating machines. The more wealth is in the hands of a few people, the worse the overall impact on society. The very idea of individual wealth – as opposed to a wealth of shared resources – is dangerous, not just for the planet, but for business and for our very social fabric. I don't separate my concern for the planet from my concern for economic inequality, because they're both part of the same system. But we have compartmentalised responsibility. We feel we can fulfil our responsibility by writing a cheque to a charity. The rest of our impact is literally out of our consciousness, certainly out of our view. It's not a holistic perspective.

So what we really want is healthy systems, with wealth generated to support them. Forum for the Future is bringing organisations together to rethink systems we depend on, but which you could say are broken – finance, food and energy. How important is it for us to understand these systems?

I think understanding systems should be an integral part of our education system. Once you learn the endless connection between all things, it makes it really hard for you to behave in a way that ignores the implications. And going back to your old way of seeing things would feel like such a fundamental distortion of reality. If you can't teach kids systems thinking in first grade, you have to catch people wherever you can – and certainly in the workplace. At Seventh Generation, we taught every employee systems thinking – for very pragmatic business reasons! If employees don't understand how their work relates to their colleagues', you find you have two departments with separate goals that have a hard time functioning as part of a whole.

But it can at times feel deeply challenging to subject your decisions to a completely systemic, holistic framework. When I'm walking down the aisle of a supermarket, I'm not able to make a systemic evaluation of everything I'm going to put in my shopping cart: it's just overwhelmingly complicated to do so. I say you have to understand the three places in your life where 50-70% of your impact is: the car you drive, your diet, for example. You have to be strategic so that you don't make yourself crazy about decisions like taking a plastic or paper bag at the grocery store.

But for many people, 'systems thinking' is a new concept, and a bit of an obscure one. Where should they start?

There's a wonderful book by Donella Meadows 'Thinking in Systems': that's probably the single best place for anyone to start. But, for me, there's just one thing which is absolutely critical, and that's the need to work together. Many of the forces (NGOs, businesses, researchers) trying to solve the problems we face are competing with each other, rather than collaborating. Think what could happen if the two million non-profits had collaboration as their number one objective, instead of each finding the 100th way to solve a problem! We need to spend more time on what unites us, and what actions help all of us move forward, even if it means going beyond our own personal priorities.

Does political polarisation get in the way of collaboration in the US?

Yes. It's deeply disturbing and saddening to see how polarised our conversation in the US has become. It's so polarised that it makes progress at times totally impossible, because we're unable to find a middle ground. A big part of the problem is the way in which we allow businesses to put money into politics. When businesses do this they disenfranchise individuals: there's no point in them trying to make their voices heard if big business can just write a big cheque.

Another problem is that businesses are encouraged to externalise their costs. Take General Electric. GE employs aggressive strategies – all 'legal' – to reduce the amount it has to pay in taxes. One would think it would be shameful for a large corporation not to contribute to our education and our defence. It's a cultural problem, combined with a systemic problem, which is really worrisome to me. We have to find a way for companies in the US to see how they can work with society, not against it. Some European companies (Unilever, M&S, Novo Nordisk) have achieved this understanding, with the help of Forum for the Future. But there are greater disincentives [over] here, which the Forum will no doubt face as it builds on its work with American businesses!

Changing this culture – in particular the sense that money can buy exemption from shared responsibilities – will obviously be a huge challenge. What do you see happening today, that might help to shift things in the right direction?

I am a believer in radical transparency. We can't solve the problems we face if we're not willing to recognise, in public, the problems we have in the first place. It is a problem that, in the business world, people want to talk about their successes but not about their failures. Most businesses are stuck in this difficult mindset that if they talk about the good, the bad and the ugly, no one will like them. But we learn just as much, if not more, from failures as we do from successes.

Anna Simpson is Managing Editor, Green Futures.

Photo: Rose Murphy

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