25 years ago, Jeffrey Hollender co-founded Seventh Generation. After moving on from revolutionizing the green cleaning and personal care industry, Jeffrey turned his full attention to an idea he had twenty years prior: making a sustainable, Fair Trade condom. Joined by daughter Meika and wife Sheila, he intends to turn the condom industry on its head. How? By challenging other condom companies to see just what their products contain, and responding to the needs of the demographic that influences 70% of all condom purchases: women.
1. How do you go from cleaning products to condoms?
I actually trademarked the name Rainforest Rubbers 20 years ago. I was fascinated with idea of getting into the condom business using natural rubber trees that grew in the Amazon basin and employing the indigenous rubber tappers from that region. This was at a time when lots of companies were trying to use the rainforest as an economic resource without cutting the trees down. So, for example, Ben & Jerry’s was harvesting brazil nuts for ice cream, The Body Shop was making cream and shampoos from the same. My idea was that by creating a sustainable condom, you could harvest naturally harvest the latex sap without harming the wild rubber trees. Condoms were a way to preserve the rainforest, help address the AIDS crisis and create jobs for the indigenous people who lived in the rainforest.
2. What does it mean for a condom to be “sustainable”?
When we think about sustainability, we don’t just think about the environment. We think holistically about what is required for the planet and the people living on planet to live in harmony with nature and each other. So, with Sustain Condoms, we look at every aspect of condom manufacturing starting with the rubber tree plantation. We found the world’s only Forest Stewardship Council certified rubber plantation, which is located in southern India. They limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and have a huge focus on preserving the biodiversity of the area. The plantation is also Fair Trade certified: they don’t use child labor, and they provide a school for the workers’ children to attend for free. Additionally, they have a hospital for the workers and free healthcare and housing. We also pay a 25% premium to raise the salary of the employees. The money goes into a fund the rubber tappers control, and they vote on how it’s invested: say, for example to increase access to electricity or water.
The factory we use to manufacture the condoms has similar high standards for their workers. It’s unionized and the employees earn three times the minimum wage in India. Every room has natural light and the workers are served lunch. The factory also has solar panels, so they generate some of their own electricity.
3. Why do you focus on women?
The condom industry historically markets exclusively to men and that has left women out of the equation. Working with my daughter Meika and my wife Sheila, we saw an incredible need and opportunity to insure that women were purchasing and using condoms--and, also importantly, a way to help women feel good, positive and empowered about buying condoms. By marketing to women, we hope to create a world where women are both empowered by and understand the importance of buying and carrying condoms. Even though women purchase 40% of all condoms and influence 70% of purchases, only 19% of single sexually active women use condoms regularly and a large part of this is due to the stigma of buying and carrying condoms.
4. What about pricing and product quality?
We believe it's critical that all women have access to sustainable condoms, so Sustain condoms will be very competitively priced. Every Sustain condom is individually tested and meets the same high quality standards that the FDA insists upon.
5. What’s it been like working with your daughter?
It’s been a unique opportunity to get to work with Meika from two point of views. One, it ensures that I get to spend time with her, which is always something I look forward too. It also allows me to get to know her in an entirely different way than as my daughter. It lets me see her abilities in new light. I get to play the role of mentor in a different sort of way than just being a dad. This is a whole new opportunity to share some of things I know with her, and she’s critical to our business because she is the woman we are marketing to. She’s also much better and more effective in talking to her peers about condom usage than I would be.
6. Tell me about 10% 4 Women.
Just like I did at Seventh Generation when we donate to environmental causes, at Sustain we want to give back to the community by giving 10% of profits specifically to fund reproductive healthcare in the U.S. Although there are lots of organizations that give money outside the U.S., we feel we have such a pressing need in this country (there are 20 million women who lack access to reproductive health care services!) to make accessible healthcare to women available here. We want to take care of women at home before we focus overseas.
7. What are you reading right now?
I’m at the tail end of Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Pinkerton, it’s a thesis on what creates economic inequality in the developed world. I always read one non-fiction and one fiction book. The fiction book I’m reading is by Carol Shields called Unless. Generally speaking I read women authors more than men. I’m not entirely sure why, but when I look at the bookshelves of books I read, 70-80% of them are authored by women.
8. What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Sitting on the beach and surfing. I try to go down to Costa Rica several times a year, but during the summer I surf out in Long Island, anywhere in the Hamptons, and out to Montauk.
9. After almost 40 years of being an entrepreneur, what keeps you inspired?
I think one of the wonderful things about business is how tangible the positive impact you can have: unlike a lot of things you can do with your life, you can really see the positive effect you are having on the people around you. That’s important to me because business has become one of the most powerful influences on the planet and if we can’t get business to have a positive influence we’re in a lot of trouble (which we generally are because business too often doesn’t have a positive influence).