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Sustainability Entrepreneur Jeffrey Hollender Talks Greenwashing and the Need for Corporate Transparency

Jeffrey Hollender has built a career in the sustainability space and observed the evolution of the language and greenwashing that defines it.

Written by
Eve Robinson

Over the last couple of decades, small and big businesses alike have begun incorporating sustainability commitments—and ostensibly greener practices—into their business models. Whether it’s going carbon neutral or switching to compostable packaging, these promises surrounding a company's efforts are ubiquitous. But when it comes to eco-conscious business practices, how can a consumer determine what's genuine and what's greenwashing?

Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder and former CEO of Seventh Generation and current CEO of the American Sustainable Business Network, has built a career in the sustainability space—and has enjoyed a front-row seat to the evolution of the marketing language that defines it, for better and for worse.

Companies and Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing practice that some businesses use to allude to planet-friendly practices, when in reality, they may be putting very little effort into their sustainability initiatives.

Greenwashing manifests in the form of misleading claims, green or earthy-colored branding, packaging imagery, or the attachment of hollow terms like "sustainable," "clean," or "natural" to a product. The common tactic can threaten brand trust, further broadening the gap between consumer expectations and business reality.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines exist, but there are currently no actual rules to prevent greenwashing. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FTC plans to update the guidelines this year, which would be a welcome shift, as the 2012 edition came well before the sustainability boom.

Seventh Generation and Accountability

Seventh Generation was one company born from a very basic (and consumer-conscious) principle in mind. "If a chemical is toxic, it shouldn't be in our homes," says Hollender. "And we were very, very concerned about the manufacturing process, as well as the ingredients we were using."

The company shared its eco-minded approach in advertising and mission statements, promoting the company as family- and environmentally-friendly. To maintain accountability, the company published product development guidelines that were accessible to the public.

But even well-meaning companies may fall victim to greenwashing unknowingly. Seventh Generation came under fire for false advertising in 2014. While working on a non-toxic alternative to three chemicals in their cleaning and personal care products, the company opted to work hastily to resolve the issue without bringing it to the public’s notice. "We decided to be silent. We didn't make claims that were false, but we were silent about the problem," Hollender recounts. The issue was resolved, but the damage was lasting. 

Today, Hollender doubles down on his idea of radical transparency—sharing information on products, ingredients, internal reports, and sustainability reports, both internally and with the public. 

The American Sustainable Business Network

So, what or who has stepped in to serve as an accountability check? After his own brush with perceived greenwashing, Hollender shifted his work and focus toward business accountability. He co-founded the American Sustainable Business Network (ASBN), an organization designed to educate, empower, and mobilize business leaders to help create an authentically ethical and sustainable economy.

ASBN works with third-party networks that can attest to, or certify, a company’s sustainability commitments. Here are some of the most popular and respected certs to look for:

  • The Leaping Bunny: This certification means there was no animal testing involved in the making of a product.
  • B Corp Certification: This certification demonstrates a commitment to providing a safe and moral environment for workers.
  • Fair Trade Certified: This certification asserts that this product was made in an ethical environment by people earning a living wage.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard: This certification ensures that materials are organic—from production to manufacturing.

It will take work and transparency for companies to resist the temptation to greenwash, regardless of the rationale. But already, many companies have begun to permanently incorporate sustainability reports into their public-facing information. "That message has gotten through the business that sustainability matters, corporate responsibility matters," says Hollender.

Many corporations are bending to the will of activist consumers and future leaders. "[Companies] know that if you want to hire these young entrepreneurs, these young leaders, you have to run a responsible, sustainable business or you won't attract the best talent that you can," says Hollender.

The future, it seems, looks transparently green.