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Earth Day Career Special: An Interview with Jeffrey Hollender

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Late last week, I reviewed Jeffrey Hollender’s latest book, The Responsibility Revolution, where I asked: Are you a Willing Outlier in a Changing Corporate Consciousness? Following on from that, I interviewed the author himself. We touched on a broad palette of questions, including: his latest book; Seventh Generation, the company he founded based on responsible business practices at a time when no one cared or knew what that even meant; CSR as an academic field of study; and his vision for the movement. Below are some of the highlights from our discussion.

The Responsibility Revolution

This book was a challenge to say, “Hey, we’re not doing good enough, and in many cases we’re failing to fulfill our responsibility. That it’s time for a revolution, and if not now, it may very well be too late to change the trajectory of many challenges we’re facing, whether it’s global climate change, fresh water, inequity between rich and poor, etc.,” and rather than focus the book on what’s wrong, we tried to be encouraging and more uplifting by telling stories of companies that are doing things right.

The CSR movement

The challenge we face is that corporate responsibility has yet to be embraced in a holistic systemic fashion. [We end up with] highly compartmentalized programs and initiatives, that in many respects don’t mitigate the continued negative impacts that business has. [For example,] Toyota makes a car like the Prius that is great from an environmental perspective, and then they go and lobby against higher mileage standards in California. They are then taking the position that yes, we want to reap the benefits of selling a green car, but we don’t want the auto industry as a whole to become more efficient and responsible. And this is symptomatic of what we [are] seeing in the market place.

EMC Chief Sustainability Officer Kathrin Winkler

Terminology: “Corporate Social Responsibility”, “Corporate Responsibility” or “Corporate Sustainability”?

First of all, we try to remove the “S” from CSR whenever we speak about it, because this is not a social or an environmental issue. Corporate responsibility has to embrace holistically its impact and responsibility. The only concern I have about sustainability is that like adding the “social” to CSR, it tends to be viewed through an environmental lens, rather than a holistic lens. Sustainability really is a holistic systemic concept, but that’s not how most people understand it. So I say corporate responsibility, because at least, I’m not signaling that it is about social issues or just environmental issues.

CSR & the Oil industry: An Impossible paradox?

…we have to start looking at more aggressive changes to the tax and regulatory structure that will begin to incentivize the right kind of business industry. China is a great example. China invests as much money in alternative energy in one month, as the U.S. does in one year. They are investing at twelve times the rate that we are. And that will result in an accelerated change in the development of their industrial sector.

Government Regulation

If financial reporting is mandatory for all businesses, social and environmental reporting should also be mandatory.

Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Index

Wal-Mart's Sustainability Index

I recently spoke on a panel with the president of Wal-Mart Canada and was extremely impressed with the passion and commitment that the management team has, and the number of initiatives that they’re working on that they have yet to share publicly. I find that encouraging, and not just because they’re such a large company, but because of the influence they have over other companies.

Can Industries like Banking, Consulting & Law Ever Adopt Responsible Business Practices?

Unfortunately, they escape public view and thus can’t be impacted by the same pressure that comes from consumers and NPOs, and the hope is that responsible businesses, whether they’re a Seventh Generation or a Wal-Mart, will hold their business partners to the same standard as they hold businesses that provide them with products that are sold to consumers.

CSR: Will I get a job after an MBA in Sustainability?

We need to gather the collective voices of small and medium-sized businesses to counter the dominant voice that a handful of multinational corporations add to the chamber of commerce. That preserves an economy that is disconnected from what we need to make America successful and competitive in the future. Also, when we write job descriptions and incentive plans, sustainability metrics and objectives have to be baked into them so that people understand that a company is serious about ensuring that people focus on the issues. Sustainability is best practiced by integrating all perspectives and understanding how they function as a system.

Top 3 CSR concerns

Lack of real transparency…the compartmentalized approach to CSR…and absence of an understanding of a systems-based holistic way of thinking.

Seventh Generation

We look at responsibility and sustainability as something that must first be practiced internally, before it can be practiced externally with any authenticity. A green product does not make for a green company and a responsible product does not make for a responsible company. So the holistic look that we want to aspire to and apply to our products, we also try to apply to our internal corporate culture.

–Posted by Aman Singh Das, In Good Company

Read the complete interview: “Take the ‘S’ out of CSR”: Jeffrey Hollender On What’s Ahead for The Way We do Business

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