Creating a Game Plan for Transition to a Sustainable Economy

author: Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation
published: June 29, 2011,   recorded: November 2009,   views: 2510

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The “chief inspired protagonist” of one of the nation’s oldest and most successful green manufacturers apologizes for delivering a talk “more depressing than expected.” While discussing the challenges facing businesses attempting to transition to a more just and sustainable economy, Jeffrey Hollender enumerates the many reasons he’s feeling bleak these days.

While some pundits claim the recession is over, Hollender sees continued deep problems, with almost one in five Americans under- or unemployed. The stock market has recovered only because of the “belief that the total financial system won’t collapse in the short term,” he says. Corporations have learned to improve quarterly earnings by quickly “getting rid of a disposable asset -- their people,” and Hollender’s worried this behavior “will lead to a downward spiral.” But his greater concern involves the underlying structure of our economic system, which makes it especially difficult for people to acknowledge and then work together to address such global problems as climate change.

Hollender finds several aspects of our economic system particularly distressing: the negative and disruptive influence money has in politics (he calls out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its opposition to the climate change legislation); the paradox of living in a society “where good things cost more than bad things;” and financial markets where “it’s entirely legal to make money without creating value for anybody other than yourself.” He also notes that organizations devoted to sustainability, including his own, may have become complacent or settled for too little. “It’s important that we not confuse the absence of bad with good,” says Hollender.

While Hollender thinks nothing less than “revolutionary change” is required to achieve a sustainable society, he does recommend some constructive steps toward that goal, such as reforming a tax structure that’s beneficial to the wealthiest people; demanding “radical transparency” from businesses, and salary caps for top executives. He also notes that companies exert “incredible leverage” through their supply chains, and points approvingly at Walmart’s moves to reduce packaging waste. Hollender believes corporate pressure in some cases has achieved more than governmental regulation: “These large companies, often the source of evil, can be incredible sources of positive change.” His greatest hopes, though, lie with the next generation: children who are educated to “see how everything’s connected,” and older students like those in his MIT audience, who he hopes will take the lead in generating social and economic change.

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