Sustainable living guru’s guide to life

April 6, 2011

In 1988, Jeffrey Hollender co-founded Seventh Generation, one of the earliest brands of environmentally friendly and socially responsible household products. Last year it reported $150 million in revenue. Hollender split from the company in October and has since begun advocating for a “greater system of well-being.”

His new book, “Planet Home” (Clarkson Potter, $20), details everything from eco-friendly condoms to fair-trade coffee while also serving as a call to arms to adapt a higher consciousness about sustainable living. His message is this: “What you do at home can impact the world around you, and the world around you can impact what you do at home.”

The son of a wealthy businessman and an actress-turned-socialite, Hollender, 56, grew up on Manhattan’s Park Avenue and spent summers in the Hamptons. He drifted from Vietnam War protests in Southern California to a year at Hampshire College in Massachusetts to a brief stint in London before finally landing in Toronto.

Eventually, after a string of nonprofit and for-profit ventures, he founded Vermont-based Seventh Generation with fellow entrepreneur Alan Newman and wrote a book called “How to Make the World a Better Place.” He has since become an avid blogger, a board member for Greenpeace and the Environmental Health Fund, and a co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council.

Today, Hollender is married with three children and splits his time between Burlington, Vt., and New York. He spoke to us by phone from Burlington about the effects of eating meat, meditation and the consequences of chlorine. Here are edited excerpts.

If someone can do only one green thing in their home, what should it be?

Buy less stuff! It is more important to buy less stuff than to buy green stuff. We as a society consume way too much, and the planet simply can’t bear the impacts. Try this: Go for 30 days and, other than food, toothpaste and gasoline, don’t buy anything new. You’ll see how addicting consumption is. Buying less stuff is something that everyone can participate in, whether you’re 8 or 80.

What do you hope people learn from “Planet Home”?

First, we wanted to help people navigate through the complex maze of making responsible and sustainable decisions, which meant thinking about what actions really matter.

Second, it was an effort at introducing the systemic approach to green living. This effort begins when you put your 2-year-old in the bathtub and wash her hair with wonderful organic shampoo but forget that you cleaned the tub with a toxic chemical.

How do you feel about the high cost of eco-friendly living?

Historically, it has been true that green living is generally a wonderful thing for the most affluent and arguably does the least for those who need it the most. However, I think this is in the early stages of changing. Not only are large retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Costco beginning to deal with the cost-premium issue, but other areas of green living that focus on the local economy, such as farmers markets, are really beginning to see some traction.

What have you discovered about cleaning products that would surprise people?

The dangerous effects of the chemicals in these products that we don’t think about, like chlorine, can be shocking. When you mix a chlorine-based cleaner with an ammonia-based cleaner, it produces a gas that will quickly send you to the hospital and possibly kill you. Products are way overpowered for the job they have to do, but we want immediate results so we pull out the heavy guns and don’t pay attention to the collateral damage. It’s like having a bazooka to kill a fly!

What are the least sustainable activities Americans do today?

The two things that come to mind are the cars we drive and the food we eat. By giving up meat, you can comfortably reduce your negative footprint on the planet by 25 percent. . . . We have food shortages and escalating food prices. Meat is a big, big issue.

Where do you look for inspiration and information?

Living in Vermont is endlessly inspiring. It’s hopeful, and balanced by spending time in Manhattan, which is inspiring in an entirely different sense. I’ve meditated daily for about two decades now. It slows me down, and I’m probably a nicer person to be around because of it!

What advice would you pass on to the next generation?

Perhaps most important is that we have the knowledge required to deal with the problems we’re facing. So it’s about asking ourselves, “Do we have the will to do what we need to do?” When I speak at colleges, I’m pretty heavy-handed about laying this responsibility on the next generation, because if they do what our generation is doing, it will not lead to a great end.

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