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Seventh Generation’s New CEO on Why Sustainability Is Necessary

February 10, 2011

From Burt's Bees to Seventh Generation: John Replogle on CSR

Breaking News: Yesterday morning, the day this article ran on the Forbes.com CSR blog, John Replogle was named CEO and President of Seventh Generation. We interviewed Replogle before the announcement was made, but we decided to run it now, since it provides some useful background on his leadership style and the approach Burt’s Bees takes to sustainability.

John Replogle joined Burt’s Bees in 2006 as President and CEO after running the skin care division at Unilever, where he helped launch the Real Beauty campaign for Dove.

First, how’s business? How are you pulling through in the tough economy?

Business is remarkably strong after a difficult 18-month recession. We’re now seeing double digit growth again, which shows real promise that the economy is on the upswing.

We made the fortunate choice to lean in, rather than pull back, during the downturn, expanding our team, expanding our facilities and building our global business in over 25 new markets in 2010. We also really raised the bar on our innovation, focusing on truly breakthrough natural products with clinical backing, like our Natural Acne Solutions line, Natural Toothpaste with Cranberry Extract, Body Lotions, and our very recently launched Tinted Lip Balms. We’re now poised for the expansion we know is possible with a healthy economy and growing number of health and sustainability-minded consumers.

How has your company responded to the economy while still trying to keep its sustainability commitments?

During economic downturns companies tighten their belts and drive out waste. Fortunately for Burt’s Bees, we’ve been practicing sustainable and green solutions for a long time so our belt was already tight and our waste was low. This has been a great advantage as we cycled through the downturn. Because we’ve trimmed our use of electricity, water, waste and most packaging inputs, we are leaner and more competitive than most companies.  This allowed us to continue to invest in our people and our brand while others pulled back.

How and when did sustainability start at your company?  Why was it seen as something important before “sustainability” became a buzzword? Who were the key players?

Burt Shavitz and Roxanne Quimby, the founders of Burt’s Bees, were eco-pioneers when they started the company over 25 years ago. They had a passion for nature and they had limited resources, which meant they were what we now call “sustainable.” We, the keepers of Burt’s Bees present, have the profound responsibility to articulate their vision in the broadest ways possible as we grow and evolve. So it’s been just that at Burt’s Bees, a journey, carrying the mission of the founders forward.

Our company has always attracted the kind of people who want to make a positive impact, so employees have been key players in getting us where we are today.  In fact, 100% employee engagement is one of our 2020 sustainability goals. We’ve made it a priority to support and educate employees so they can be leaders in sustainability at work and at home.  Today, Burt’s Bees is recognized by consumers as the #1 Green Brand in the U.S. (according to the ImagePower Green Brands Survey) because we remain rooted in the vision and principles that Burt and Roxanne held 25 years ago.

What’s “The Greater Good” and, more importantly, who was involved in creating it, what was the process like, why was it necessary to create a brand?

The Greater Good™ is our business model and we think of it as the highest ethical choice any of us can make to maximize our overall well-being. It links to and supports our mission “to make people’s lives better every day, naturally.”  It serves as our compass for decision-making and responsible growth and it was created by all of us at Burt’s Bees. When I joined the company, I gathered a cross-functional team to set the vision for the company, and this, along with our cultural principles and our sustainability goals, was part of the outcome. It’s the Burt’s Bees way of defining and stewarding the Triple Bottom Line, fulfilling our commitment to natural well-being, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility.  It’s our promise to all of our stakeholders.

You have some impressive goals; how are you managing the business operations to get to zero landfill waste by 2020?

I’m proud to say that our team has already reached that goal!  Since 2006 we’ve reduced our waste from 344 tons to just 4.4 tons in late 2009 before achieving zero waste to landfill across all of our operations in 2010.  We recycle or compost most of our waste and find other upcycling outlets for the rest.  Education, engagement and measurement and rewards have helped us achieve our goals. We even resorted to dumpster dives to drive a dramatic shift in behavior. You can see us dumpster diving here.

So many companies, especially consumer-facing companies, talk about their commitment to the tenets of sustainability. How do you break through the noise and communicate authenticity?

Being authentic and transparent are not optional, and actually doing as you say is paramount.  By investing in our culture and values, our employees make the right choices in keeping the grassroots green and vibrant. Our products and packaging speak for us as well. In our formulation and packaging decisions, we attempt to pioneer green and sustainable choices.  When you practice what you believe it gives you a credible voice to speak.  We have shared our progress (and challenges) openly through our CSR report, which is found on our website, and through direct communications with our consumers via Facebook and Twitter.

Burt’s Bees was purchased by Clorox in 1997; how has no longer being independent influenced the company’s sustainability efforts?

Burt’s Bees was actually purchased by Clorox at the end of 2007. Paradoxically, the acquisition has actually enhanced our ability and propelled our desire to pursue our goals more aggressively.  We’ve been encouraged by the leadership at Clorox to be pioneers in sustainability and to share our practices and principles widely across the organization. It has been deeply gratifying to watch the steady progress Clorox has achieved the past three years in making ever more sustainable choices. While no company is perfect, Burt’s Bees and Clorox have mutually benefited from our shared commitment to sustainable practices.

There must be conflicts in vision and execution; how do you handle that?

Burt’s Bees and Clorox share a common vision to become more sustainable businesses; we are, however, at different stages along our journey.  Clorox has provided Burt’s Bees with great capabilities in supply chain management and manufacturing efficiencies. These have been central to achieving our waste, water and electricity reduction goals.  Burt’s Bees has shared with Clorox our best practices in natural formulations, sustainable packaging choices and employee engagement practices. These have all helped Clorox move forward.  While we are in differing stages of development, our areas of expertise have been highly complimentary in closing gaps in each organization.

Generally speaking, can sustainability, which requires long-term thinking for business, continue to grow when so many analysts, investors, and the media are hyper-focused on the short-term, quarterly profits?

We must kill the myth that being sustainable is at odds with driving profitable business forward. Burt’s Bees is a more competitive and profitable business BECAUSE we embrace sustainable practices.  We take a systemic approach to design and problem solving which drives waste, in its many forms, out of our business.  This is best practice.

Sustainability is no longer optional.  Companies that fail to adopt such practice will perish. They will not only lose on a cost basis, they will also suffer in recruiting employees as well as attracting consumers.  At the end of the day, companies have to be able to do both well, delivering a positive return for investors, and good, making the right choices for people and the  planet for the long term.

Just as an aside and not necessarily related to sustainability, what is your leadership style? What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is simply about building trust and engendering followership.  Leadership is founded on a few core principles and practices.  First, you must know yourself and be clear and consistent in the practice of your values in order to build trust. This takes persistence, patience and the courage to acknowledge when you get it wrong. Second, leadership is about setting a vision and instilling belief in an inspiring set of goals. Finally, it comes down to finding the good in all people and mentoring them to achieve something of purpose greater than they may have believed achievable.

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