When America Thinks Green, Eco-Preneurs Alan Newman and Jeffrey Hollender Think Greenbacks

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Despite the hoopla surrounding Earth Day last April, the moment has yet to arrive when the American consumer can push a cart through a supermarket and hear the announcement, "Attention shoppers! Special in aisle 7: dioxin-free diapers!"

Like millions of other frustrated shoppers who have found refuge in the proliferation of catalog stores, green consumers can take heart. Seventh Generation, a mail-order company based in Burlington, Vt., sells everything for the environmentally responsible household. Run by entrepreneurs Alan Newman and Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation (1-800-441-2538) stocks energy-saving light bulbs (most last for 9,000 hours, compared with an ordinary light bulb's 1,000-hour lifetime), vegetable-based detergents (packaged in recycled plastic) and water-saving faucet aerators and toilet dams. Want more? How about some biodegradable cellulose sandwich bags, nontoxic windshield cleaner and a canister of chemical-free carpet deodorizer? Some unbleached, dioxin-free coffee filters, perhaps? "People have heard a lot about the problems of pollution, but not enough about the solutions," says Newman, 43, Seventh Generation's president. "We don't claim that we're going to save the world, but if people are going to buy products anyway, it's good that they pay attention to what they are getting."

Newman and Hollender may not claim Seventh Generation is going to save the world, but they do claim that last year's sales can be translated into a savings of 11,055 trees, more than 250 million gallons of water and 33 million pounds of air-polluting chemicals. In doing good, Newman and Hollender are also doing well: In 1989, the company's first year, Seventh Generation ran up more than $1 million in gross sales; the pair say their 1990 figures will dwarf that. "We didn't think we were going to make any money," says Newman. "In our wildest dreams, we didn't imagine anything close to this."

Newman became involved with the company two years ago when a nonprofit organization called Renew America asked him to take over its money-losing catalog of energy conservation products. A '60s antiwar activist who had fled Long Island for the countercultural hills of Vermont, Newman had run a successful mail-order business called Gardening Supply Company. The idea of an environmental product catalog in trigued him. "I thought it would be fun," he says. "It's not that I saw myself as an environmentalist; it's that I saw myself as somebody who pays attention. I thought this was something that needed to happen."

While Newman was mulling the idea, he received a call out of the blue from Hollender, a Manhattan native who had made his first bundle when he sold his audiocassette publishing company to Warner Communications in 1985. Hollender, 35, had just finished writing a book called How to Make the World a Better Place and was eager to start an environmentally oriented business. He joined forces with Newman in January 1989. "We wanted to sell products that would help solve environmental problems," says Hollender. "We also wanted to create a business model that was fundamentally different."

Their first decision was to change the catalog's name. They picked the title Seventh Generation from an Iroquois proverb which teaches that each action should be considered in light of its effect on the next seven generations of the nation. Next, the partners scoured the globe for innovative resource-saving products. One of their biggest successes has been the simple, reusable string shopping bag (two for $8.95) that Europeans have used for generations. Other products weren't so successful. Reusable sanitary napkins, for example. "They work," says Hollender. "They're hygienically sound. But American women apparently aren't ready for them."

Newman and Hollender have tried to make Seventh Generation responsive to its staff as well. Each year the 100 employees elect a representative to sit on the 10-person board of directors. Although Newman and Hollender earmark 1 percent of Seventh Generation's gross income to environmental causes, employees are invited to select the organizations. At the Burlington warehouse, there is even a nap room for sleepy workers.

So far, the duo's partnership has worked seamlessly. Hollender favors pinstriped business suits, lives with his wife, Sheila, and two children in New York City and takes care of marketing and finance. Newman's business attire consists of Patagonia shorts and Day-Glo green sunglasses. He lives with his wife, Judy, and two children in Burlington and oversees warehouse operation and catalog development. "I'm usually cast as the ethical Vermont guy, while Jeffrey is cast as the New York money guy," says Newman with a laugh. "That's a real caricature. The truth is, we each have both sets of qualities."

Both men are eager to compete in a bigger marketplace but, Newman concedes, "A lot of the stuff we sell is in such limited supply that supermarkets would have a hard time stocking it. Besides," he adds, "Seventh Generation isn't just selling toilet paper. We're selling a set of values."

—Susan Reed, Dirk Mathison in Burlington

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