The Planet’s Choice For a Powerful Clean with Martin Wolf

June 29, 2021

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Martin H. Wolf creates the frameworks for design of sustainable products at Seventh Generation, Inc., a manufacturer/distributor of ecological household and personal care products. He also creates frameworks for more sustainable systems of commerce, and for working with other businesses, industry associations, legislators and regulators to implement those frameworks. Wolf brings over 40 years of experience in industrial and environmental chemistry to his work. He has conducted studies of environmental fate and metabolism for agricultural chemicals, the occurrence of hazardous chemicals in the environment, and the life cycles of product systems; and has also designed more sustainable household cleaning products.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. This is a great edition of the Impact. We’re so honored and lucky to have with us today Martin Wolf, who’s the director of sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation. Welcome to the Impact Podcast Martin.

Martin Wolf: Thank you, John and hello. It’s great to be here.

John: So far I always get a little envious when I have great people like you that are located in Burlington, Vermont on our podcast because he’s all these good things that come out of Burlington, Vermont in the Vermont area: Seventh Generation, and then you have, of course, Ben and Jerry’s, and then, of course, Stratton Mountain isn’t too far away either, by the way.

Martin: That’s very true. And I’m very lucky to be in Vermont. I actually started life in a place called Brooklyn, New York, a little bit south of here. You might have heard of it.

John: Sure. One of the five boroughs. You’re from one of the five boroughs. As am I. [crosstalk]

Martin: That is correct. Which one?

John: Up Queens. You’re Brooklyn. But that’s all good. We all get along. We’re New Yorkers.

Martin: Exactly. I just came here about 20 years ago when I joined Seventh Generation full time. Before that, I was in a company called Cambridge Analytical Associates which did analyses of environmental samples for chemical contamination. It was the company I started with my thesis advisor, oh many years ago that I have to consider. And what it did was, open my eyes to how widespread contamination was in the environment. And we sold the company. And as many CEOs do, when their companies gets sold, I became a consultant and Seventh Generation was one of my clients. I worked with them for many years, quite from the founding. And then they finally decided that I had enough to offer they would hire me as a full-time employee. And that’s why I moved to [crosstalk] Vermont.

John: What was your first title there, Martin? What was your first title when you officially joined as an employee?

Martin: I think I was the director of sustainability but I realize maybe it was RD. I can’t remember. It was so long ago.

John: Yeah, 20 years ago. If that’s the case really 20 years ago, you were then right at the beginnings of Genesis, of director of sustainability, as the chief sustainability officers because truly that wasn’t a thing back then 20 years ago.

Martin: That’s correct. And when I started being a scientist, a chemist by background, I saw sustainability from a very technical lens. We could do things for the environment, but I also carried with me the heritage of my having worked for industry for many years. And that is, all products were safe when used as directed. And Jeffrey would ask me almost every day, “Can’t we say anything about the safety of the products?”. And I would say, “No, all products are safe.” But he wore me down. And eventually, one day I was sitting thinking about the various standards that we had put in place for our products and particularly one around what we called volatile organic compounds. These are things that evaporate. So you breathe them in and I realized we can make products that are safer. That it really does make a difference. And it was a eureka moment for me though. I’m sure Jeffrey was frustrated. Hearing me say no for so many years, right? But it’s also emblematic of the growth that I have had and I’m still having working for Seventh Generation. And with all the really great people who see how we need to change the world in the way we not only make products but the way we do business and the way our whole system of commerce is built and the way it operates.

John: I want to get back to that in the second. I just want to remind our listeners we’ve got Martin Wolf with us today and he’s the director of sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation. Find Seventh Generation and their wonderful products, please go to Spell it out. S-E-V-E-N, spell out Seventh Generation dot com. And just to go back to who you’re referring to, Jeffrey Hollander, of course, was the founder CEO of Seventh Generation back when you joined on. And I have to say he held a special place here because he was one of the first big sustainability superstars that came on our show when we just first started the show and we couldn’t even get arrested. And he said, “I’ll come on and, oh, I’ll help them push the movement forward.” And he came on, not once, but twice. Then eventually have his daughter come on and talk about her sustainable condom that she has called sustained. And just one of the greatest people I’ve ever been associated with. We’ve never met him in person but I’ve just loved your brand ever. And after I fell in love with Jeffrey, I fell in love with your brand and have been using it ever since.

Martin: Well, thank you for using our products. That means you’ve been helping support me for many years. Jeffrey is an amazing person. When he helped form or was a co-founder of Seventh Generation, the idea of making products for the purpose of being environmental was just getting started. We were a mail order catalogue. My role was to actually look at the products in the catalogue, because we didn’t manufacture them at the time, and say whether the claims being made by the people who manufacture the products are true or not, whether they greenwash. And then from there, we started making our own detergent products, our own recycled paper products. And in 1995, I believe the decision was made to sell the catalogue and to go wholly into wholesale distribution and retail sales of the products. That was a real big decision in the history of the company, but it also paved the way for the growth we’ve experienced.

John: Martin, in my household, we use all of your products and we have since the days I met Jeffrey, and was turned on to it. Well it wasn’t easy, not all of your products were readily easily accessible at that point. But we found them and use them. I’ll tell you the one that’s the most non-negotiable for me personally. It’s your detergent because I find that all those other detergents out there, and I’m not going to name names, we don’t have this show to throw rocks, we have it to celebrate and hold up the great brands as beacons of hope, but your laundry detergent is just next-level amazing in terms of just getting clothes clean but also just being hypoallergenic and keeping everybody happy in one household. I think your products are just wonderful overall.

Martin: Thank you, John. I appreciate that. We’ve had a product philosophy since I’ve been with the company that is: our products are going to be on shelf at a slightly higher cost because the ingredients we use are at a slightly higher cost. And therefore we need to perform like a premium product. We can’t be a value performance brand at a premium price. We make sure that we are close to performance of premium brands in our category but are true to our mission to create products that reduce the risk of harm and are better for the environment.

John: Your mission actually states, and I’m going to read this out of quotes. And again for our listeners and viewers who joined us, we’ve got Martin Wolf with us today, the director of sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation. Find Seventh Generation at – an amazing array of products. Here’s your mission statement as it says in quotes. Make the world a healthy sustainable and equitable place for the next seven generations. Now, Martin, help me out here. First of all, what does that really have to do with, as I just pointed out, laundry detergents, which is the most non-negotiable product in my household? Secondarily, I just want to ask you of this. When you started this journey with with the great people, Jeffrey and his colleagues at Seventh Generation, you were so early in this process in terms of the sustainability revolution. I mean, it must be fun to wake up today and see everything that’s going on with ESG, circular economy, Bloomberg, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNBC. That’s all they’re talking about now. It feels as though your time has come. Frankly for our company it feels like our time has come. I tried to have a megaphone in the stadium for years and but all of a sudden everyone’s paying attention today. Talk a little bit about your mission first and then talk a little bit about timing – being early, but now being right on time.

Martin: Sure. First, I love the mission because it says nothing about laundry detergents. It doesn’t even say anything about being a business and it gets to the very heart of what is business. Why should governments charter these companies to do what they do? As you know, every corporation by definition has signed Articles of Incorporation in the state, often it’s Delaware. For Seventh Generation, it’s Vermont, but you need to have Articles of Incorporation that say: you have a board of directors with a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders in your company. That’s it. And as we saw in the past 20 years under the Milton Friedman approach to economics of the only job of a corporation is to serve its shareholders. Corporations didn’t become highly extractive, destructive to the environment, destructive to human rights, destructive to anything that does not add to the bottom line. And you cannot have a stable sustainable society if you do that. What we’re learning is that you need to have more than a desire to make money and so Seventh Generation is a business with a mission to create a healthy, sustainable, and equitable world and to do that by being a successful business. and the importance of wording it this way is that if we have to make a decision between a more expensive ingredient and one that might have harm to the environment or human health, it’s not a debate. Profit is a secondary objective. It’s important to be a profitable company, to be a successful company to fulfill our mission. But our mission is to create a healthy sustainable and equitable world for the next seven generations. You take that safer ingredient and then figure out how to make a profit with it.

John: That’s so fascinating and I love that mission. I mean, I literally – I just embrace everything that your company is about and the people, of course, exude, that you included just like Jeffrey and talk. But it’s so interesting, five minutes ago as you said you shared not only do you choose the best ingredients to put in your product but then when it hits the shelf, it’s a little bit more expensive. Someone like me, and all my friends, and relatives, and my children now who are adults, they want to buy the safest best products for themselves and their families. They’re not price shopping, they’re quality shopping. I would assume for the most part, what you’ve learned with all your massive success at Seventh Generation over these years is there’s a huge marketplace for you – for your products out there that are the highest quality and people aren’t price sensitive to those things.

Martin: Some people may not be, but we have to recognize those people are often people with privilege, who have a higher economic income, or a background that is a privileged economic background. And our mission is to create a world, not just a segment of the world, that is healthy, sustainable and equitable. While we’re on shelf typically at a higher price, we still want to find ways to make products like ours that are more price competitive, they could be a value product and available at a more value price. I.e. there are consumers out there who need a lower price, but they should still be able to get products that are safe and do not harm the environment.

John: I love the mission and it’s so timely. It’s so interesting how when Jeffrey came on years ago, I’m talking about at least 10 years ago now, maybe more, he explained to me, he actually walked me more through back then what you do. You were the one who informed him and he walked me and the listeners through the science of what you do as opposed to, and again, I’m not going to throw bricks at other brand names, but the fact is those brand names that we grew up with, and you and I are the same generation, we grew up with iconic brands that literally have hazardous materials in them that are grandfathered under some weird grandfather laws in America and I’ve never seen in there and back, then it was just strictly a podcast, it wasn’t video. And I’m listening to Jeffrey and I’m like, “how is this even possible that these brands are on the shelves with all these negative elements that are in them?” And thank God, that Seventh Generation is making cleaner and better products that have much less environmental impact, human impact, ecosystem impact from the best ingredients. So he was walking me through literally the scientist stuff that you, I’m sure, had informed him on.

Martin: Maybe. I like to think I have a point of view, that’s helpful. I actually have a series of questions I love to ask people if you don’t mind it, being for a moment. Okay? I like to begin by asking people how old they are, and you don’t have to give me a number. Just think of a number in your head.

John: I’m gonna give you my number.

Martin: Okay.

John: I’m 58 years old.

Martin: Okay, excellent. What is something that you are made from?

John: That my body is made from?

Martin: That your body is made from.

John: Water?

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Martin: Water is a great substance. How old is that water?

John: It’s so funny. I’ve had some of the greatest water experts in the world on this show and I don’t know the answer to that question.

Martin: Well it’s a surprising answer. It’s actually older than the Earth itself. Water on the earth was formed somewhere between 7 and 11 billion years ago. You’re made out of materials that are between seven and 11 billion years old. Did you feel tired when you got out of bed this morning?

John: I feel good today actually, I was decided I was energized to come back to this conversation.

Martin: Well then you’re not showing your true age. The point is that you’re made out of recycled materials. Nature recycles materials over and over again. That water at one point was in an empty ocean. It was then the seed for life on this Earth. It might have been in an early bacteria. It might have been in a dinosaur at one point. It might have been Abraham either, who knows. But that water has been used over and over and over again by nature. If we want to create sustainability, we have to start thinking in the same terms as nature. How to cycle things over and over again. And that’s what – I’ve never heard it. And I’d have had so many wonderful friends and other acquaintances that are so important to this whole circular economy discussion, but I love what you just said, no one has ever said that to me before. That our recycling products are for beneficial reuse and also that our circular economy impact you. That’s just a wonderful way to make it personal.

John: Which leads me to my next question, Martin. Is part of what you’re doing as the Director of sustainability and also authenticity is part of good messaging from brands like yours that are truly making the world a better place? Convincing people first that they’re saving themselves and therefore, in saving themselves, they could also save the planet? Is there some personal stake that we’ve got to appeal to in the human nature of people? A little bit of selfishness before they think of the macro or, how does that work when it comes to social and cultural messaging?

Martin: I’m really glad to say that I’m a chemist. I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist because I don’t know the answer to that question. But clearly we have to think differently than we’ve been thinking and what gives me optimism is the generation following behind us. I should say the generations [crosstalk] are much more aware of their interconnectedness and of their relationship to the Earth.

John: Right. Behind me, yes.

Martin: And they want to see change. We have Greta Thornburg talking about climate and millions of followers around the world who see the need to do things differently and more equitably. Look at – it is the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder and I think the awareness around the world of the need for more equitable systems of policing more equitable systems of governance is increasingly clear, and I just hope that we have a combined wisdom rate enough to move in that direction.

John: I love what you’re saying. What psyches me is for years I felt like I was talking into a vacuum when I was messaging our company which recycles electronic waste, which happens to be the fastest growing solid waste in the world. The fun part about our story, which nobody really knows because the media would rather cover if Elon Musk’s hair is to the right or the left instead of covering more spreading out the – which is okay, he’s done brilliant work and I’m not degrading any of his work, but they’re very – they choose who to make their icons and other sectors of the same story line gets a little bit muffled out. When we recycle electronic waste, it’s zero waste zero landfill zero mission. All of it goes from – all the commodities go for beneficial reuse. For years no one would pay attention, but now, I feel, for the first time in my life, what it must feel like to be the most handsome guy in high school or the prettiest woman is at a party or something of that nature. Because now it seems like every time you and I open media, whatever media it is like Speaking, it could be the MIT, WSJ or whatever or Bloomberg, CNBC, Fox, it’s all about green and the ESG that’s being spent, the money on ESG investment and the move from the linear to circular economy seems to have now hit a tipping point and I don’t think there’s going back. But do you feel the same shift that’s happened just in the last 24 months, as opposed to the previous 18 years where you were, “I’ve been doing your same and great work”, anyway?

Martin: It’s funny you ask that question because our new CEO, his name is Joey Bergstein, once said that we are a 30-year overnight success. It’s true. It really is. Here we are. But it took a long time to get here. And something that Jeffrey has always said that is amazingly true. It’s not amazing but it is definitely true. It is that our company cannot change the world by itself. We can set an example, but we need a legion of aligned thinkers and aligned companies. And as you know, we were purchased by Unilever about four years ago. And there are three things I want to call out about that. The first is that Paul Polman, who was the CEO of Unilever at the time, came to Vermont and said to us that Unilever acquired us for a reason. There would be tremendous pressure to change but we shouldn’t. Rather we should set an example and continue to do what we’re doing. That was really important from the standpoint of not yielding to all of the pressures we face then and we face now to change. The second thing is when I had my first meeting with sustainability staff at Unilever. The VP of communication and sustainability at the time asked me, “How much PCR, post-consumer recycled plastic, do you have in your packaging?” And I said we’re about 84, 86 percent and their director of packaging was there and he asked her, “What is Unilever?” And she said, “1.4%”. Four years later, Unilever worldwide is close to 25% and has objectives to be at 50% soon. So by learning from us Unilever has become a strong leader in the sustainability of materials and circular economy, and it’s great to have that partnership.

John: I’m going to tell you something that I just – I know that you were purchased by a large corporation and I hadn’t focused on it because I knew you were continuing to do your great work and had a bigger platform to to make that happen. But now that you brought it up, I have to tell you something that I just realized as you were sharing that great story which makes me really proud, more proud than ever before. Just like, you’re from Brooklyn and I’m from Queens, I just realized we’re related in another way. And let me tell you the way that we’re related. This news has not even come out yet. We haven’t advertised this. It’s going to be, by the time this show airs, even though like you said today we’re taping this show on the tragic historical day of George Floyd’s death. The show is going to air in three to four weeks. And here’s what will come out during that time. Unilever is an investor and my good friend, Ron Goldman’s closed-loop fund, and the closed-loop fund last Wednesday just completed a very substantial investment in our company, which means, again, you’re from Brooklyn, I’m from Queens, but we’re still New Yorkers. I’m now part of the investment family of Unilever. I’m even more honored to have this discussion than I was when I woke up this morning because here we are. But I just want to tell you, I’m a huge believer in what Unilever’s doing. It was like you said, a lot of people do things, different ways, different reasons but they’re truly, their actions are matching their words. And that’s just wonderful to see. And I think that’s going to become more of the norm and here’s why. As you and I know, just in the last two or three weeks, literally something just happened today, which I’m going to go back to in a second, but the SEC came out and they said they’re going to make publicly traded companies report up on their ESG Behavior. First time ever that’s ever come out in terms of public companies having to now report up. And BlackRock has also said the same. They said they’re now going to make their portfolio companies report up to as to their ESG Behavior. As BlackRock goes, in terms of the investment world, the other investment funds are going to follow suit and make their CEOs and their leadership teams do the same. And it was just this morning that the news broke. I saw over Reuters that BlackRock’s now pushing back on ExxonMobil’s board as to appointment of new members that have real diversity, inclusivity and sustainability backgrounds and can now add more in helping transform that great brand that we all love. But also, they need some help and moving in the right direction. There’s a movement that has so much energy behind it now. SEC, BlackRock, the investment world. It seems as though we really truly finally on the right track in the movement of the linear economy to circular economy.

Martin: I agree. First of all, congratulations. That’s wonderful to hear about the investment. I wish you tremendous luck.

John: Thank you.

Martin: I guess I can call you cousin now.

John: We’re cousins now. There’s no denying, right?

Martin: And I agree the investment community is starting to take real notice of the need for sustainability. We’re at a crisis point with our civilization. We can’t continue to do what we’re doing or even approximate what we’re still doing and hope to survive the next several decades. The fact that companies are still trying to build new fossil infrastructure, new coal plants, and things like that is ludicrous. When we have been out of coal last year, not even by 2030. To hear that companies like BlackRock. I heard that the EG7 together have decided no longer to invest in coal. To hear those things happening now is really heartening and and speaks to the change that’s underway.

John: Martin, the show is, of course, all about you and your great brand, Seventh Generation. For our listeners and viewers who just joined us right now. Please check out what Martin’s doing with this colleagues at Seventh Generation by going to www.seventh, spell it out, Seventh I’m on your website. Now it’s full of great information. Talk a little bit about where we’re going. We have a lot of young people, like you said generations behind us, that watches show that listen to this podcast. If they want to be the next Martin Wolf, if they want to be the next Jeffrey Hollander, what advice do you have for the youth out there that is dying to not only pay their bills and make a nice living and and have a nice family life but also make a difference every day when they show up to their office?

Martin: First piece of advice is be more like Jeffrey Hollander.

John: You’re hopeless.

Martin: Okay. But science is important. Those people who are interested in science, definitely pursue it so that you can understand the world, the way the world works and can make changes that are meaningful. Because one thing that’s always difficult is actions, creating actions that actually have meaningful change. It’s easy to just do something. It’s much harder to do something that will create true sustainable change because there are so many interconnections and we need to be aware of all of them all the time or we create what are called unintended consequences. People give thought to what you’re doing. Don’t go after slogans, go after meaningful change. Second thing is be kind. We can’t have an equitable society if we’re not kind to ourselves and to others. I think the Dalai Lama that that said, “Be kind whenever you can and you can always be kind”. We need to do that.

John: Go ahead.

Martin: Okay. And I was going to say next is recognize that you may not be to create change alone. But by working with others you can create great change. And like so many things, if you start with just a small nucleus of dedicated people or even a small nucleus of dedicated snow, you can create an avalanche of change. Recognize that there’s power in starting small with people who care and are willing to work with you and that can grow to a meaningful mass and really change the world.

John: I love all those but I’m also going to say this to our listeners. When our producers were doing the pre-show interview and also gathering information not only on Seventh Generation but on you, you shared with them another quote. I’m going to just say this, growing up in New York City and growing up as part of the 60’s, I always thought the leader of the feminist Revolution and one of my great heroes was Gloria Steinem. And I was in a video restaurant one night in Manhattan years ago, five, six years ago, and I got to shake her hand while we’re waiting for the restroom. And I just thought it was the greatest thing to actually meet her finally, such an iconic leader who just broke every barrier on the planet. But a couple of years back, I was invited to a music CARES event where they are honoring a singer that I really wasn’t that exposed to, Dolly Parton. And after watching this evening, that evening of gratitude that was bestowed upon her and understanding her history and what she did for the feminist Revolution and how inclusive she is as a human being and how she broke more barriers than almost anyone I could ever imagine. I just need to say, I thought I was so excited to meet you today because the quote that you share with our producers was so cool. It’s from Dolly Parton. It says, “Be rich in spirit, kindness, love, and all those things you can’t put a dollar sign on”. And Martin Wolf, that’s really cool stuff.

Martin: Well, thank you very much John. Now, you’ve heard my two favorite dollies. And by the way does anyone need any more than those two dollies? That’s pretty good in life. You got that down pat.

John: Great. I just want to thank you again for all the great work you’ve done over your career, number one, but also specially at Seventh Generation. Again, for our viewers and listeners, please support a great brand like Seventh Generation, you can find their products all over at great stores. But online, it’s Seventh Generation, spell it out. Martin Wolf, you’re always invited back on the Impact Podcast. You are truly making the world a better place and just continue the great work. And God bless you and all your colleagues. Thank you for sharing some of your journey today with all of us.

Martin: Thank you very much John. It was a real pleasure.

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