At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of ESG, leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Alison Whritenour, Chief Executive Officer at Seventh Generation, about her journey from traditional marketing to corporate social responsibility, her concerns about this moment in ESG, and how her hope that Seventh Generation’s new approach to CSR reporting will provide the blueprint for its future.

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: How did your personal and professional journey to the field of ESG begin?

Alison Whritenour, CEO, Seventh Generation: My career kicked off in traditional consumer packaged goods fashion at Colgate-Palmolive. It’s a wonderful company, and I learned tremendously, but during that time, I realized that many of the things I was interested in weren’t being addressed from a brand and product perspective. At the time, sustainability wasn’t really a hot topic yet, but it was undeniably where all my passions lay. I was thinking about things like non-toxicity, having fewer chemicals, how a product’s ingredients interact with human health. 

Following those interests gave me my way in: I started exploring how I could apply my passion for brand management to companies I personally believed in and used in my own life. On a whim, I applied through a LinkedIn post to Seventh Generation, which I hadn’t heard much about. They were in Vermont — far from home.

Seventh Generation invited me to come up for an interview, so I went. I spent a day at the office I now work in, and I met incredible people who are, at their core, genuinely interested in changing the world and in thinking about doing business differently.

I was applying for a junior level in the organization, so it was a significant decision to take the job considering I’d be moving my whole family to Vermont. But I was inspired by the idea that business could be done differently from what I’d learned in school — from even what I’d seen at a large company. So I thought, “Why not take this chance? I can always go back.”

People often talk about gut instinct, and I tend to rely on it. That’s how I entered this field. It’s funny because people now ask how I got into ESG or CSR. I tell them, “I didn’t!” And that’s the truth. I just loved the company and what it stood for. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about what those concepts actually mean and the impact they can have, but a lot of it wasn’t formalized when I started in this space more than 10 years ago. It was genuine interest that led me to this work, and it’s really been what’s driving me ever since.

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you define this moment in ESG?

Whritenour, Seventh Generation: This stage concerns me. We’ve seen many companies adopt ambitious goals, and communicate them to the world. But then what happens to those amazing goals? They shift, they get scaled back, or they just don’t materialize. I’m not seeing the accountability that we need to make sure that business is going to be a driving force in solving the environmental challenges of our time. This is the most urgent moment for our environment, and the combination of big goals not materializing and very real challenges facing business leaders and consumers is a collision that’s really getting in the way of impact and action.

I hope that a company like Seventh Generation can continue to be a great proof point that sustainable practices are possible despite various circumstances. We aren’t a huge company, but what we can do is really influence and punch above our weight class. And that’s really where we see the magic is helping move the big guys along who are going to have the most impact.

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some initiatives you and your team are driving at Seventh Generation that you think are noteworthy or that show promising signs of advancing the field?

Whritenour, Seventh Generation: There’s often a misconception that sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR) occurs in isolated environments. I have the privilege of running a company that was essentially founded on the idea of CSR. We have a genuine mission to transform the world into a healthier, more sustainable, and equitable place, and this guides all of our decisions. We have a rigorous set of product standards and practice radical transparency both internally and externally. 

We are a B Corp, and all of those things were here before I got here, before many of us got here. It’s in the DNA of the company to really serve as an example of what happens when CSR isn’t a standalone concept or an afterthought, but when the business itself is actually born from the idea of doing more than just delivering profit to shareholders, but truly standing for people, planet, and profitability. That’s how we run the company, that’s how my predecessors ran the company, and that’s how I’ve inherited the role. 

It’s a really important part of how this works because when I think about sustainability teams or CSR teams in bigger organizations, I think they’re often just considered around big decisions — you get their inputs, maybe you consider them, maybe you don’t, and then you just do what you were going to do already. 

But at Seventh Generation, our chief impact officer, the leader of our corporate consciousness — which represents advocacy and sustainability — sits on our leadership team. It’s a powerful reminder that you can’t make the easy decision. 

One key approach that sets us apart is the way we think about storytelling: We need everyone to understand the sustainability of our products the same way that they would understand the science of our products or what products claim to do. So for our marketers, your job is to innovate sustainability forward, all while finding a way to continue to hold our product standards as you do that. And that’s true across every function, but it really becomes the ethos for how these really hard decisions are made because there’s no shortcuts here. It’s all of our jobs.

In 2022, we came out with what we’re calling our Fingerprints report, which is truly the next generation of CSR reporting. We did our first CSR reporting in 2004, and we were one of the only companies to really do that at the time, so we’ve been in this for a while, and we’ve inspired a lot of Fortune 500 companies to do the same. But this year, we were really grappling with the question of what does the future of CSR reporting, of work like the work we’re leading, actually look like? 

It led our team down a path of not just looking at your carbon footprint, because this really is about everything we touch. The thesis around Fingerprints is that you really follow the impact of everything you touch, not just what you create. The most tangible examples being the investments you make, the services that you invest in, where you do your banking and where banks are investing your money.

Success for us looks like one other industry partner doing this, because if they do this, it can cement this approach as the reporting of the future.

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your success?

Whritenour, Seventh Generation: A few things come to mind. First, I genuinely believe in what I do. I really give a shit, and am committed to leading this company to the next milestone. If we get there, we can be a successful business model that shows the whole world that this is possible. I am purposeful in making sure I show up every day with this ethos in mind.

Second, I take the role of being an empathetic leader very seriously, and there’s power in that. If you understand where you are, then you can understand where your team and where your consumers are, and you can address their needs and concerns as though they’re your own. This human connection is critical to the work we do.

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are some leaders in the field you admire, and who inspires you on a regular basis?

Whritenour, Seventh Generation: It’s funny you should ask me that question because I’ve been asking that question to others since I came into this job. To be honest with you, I don’t know how many people are out there doing roles exactly like mine. I’m someone who deeply values female leadership, and for me, other women doing this work and leading this work are where I find most of my inspiration. That’s been a sweet spot for me: Finding other women in the climate movement who are also willing to stand up and lead a company in that direction. 

Jenna Johnson, President of Patagonia, is one of these women. As a fellow leader in the space, she’s someone out there living the operational complexity of running incredible legacy businesses that stand for so much. She’s a true champion of not only the vision for driving sustainability forward, or in Patagonia’s case, raising the bar, but also what it takes from an operating model, financial delivery, and ensuring employee well-being. I take a lot of notes from her, especially regarding the challenges she’s wrangling these days.

Winona LaDuke joined one of our community conversations, and if you don’t know Winona, she is an Indigenous frontline community member and the executive director of Honor the Earth. She’s a total badass who doesn’t hesitate to tell people what they need to do to protect the sacred land she deeply believes in. I think the radical energy she brings to conversations is amazing, and she and her tribal partners represent a remarkable commitment to being true stewards of the environment and land around them. I’ve continued to watch her.

I always follow what The Sunrise Project is up to. I think the voices of the youth right now are crucial. I’m focused on what the next generation is calling for, and their willingness to take action gives me a lot of inspiration. I tend to follow their work and actions because they’re articulating what’s needed so well right now.

I’ve also been finding inspiration from podcasts — and one I’ve been following is Michael Gervais’s Finding Mastery. As a sports psychologist, he interviews people about how they become experts in their fields from a leadership perspective, physical perspective, and mental standpoint. Although I know nothing about sports, listening to this podcast has been enlightening and has provided me with some out-of-the-box applications for myself.

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub