Unilever acquired Seventh Generation last week, for something in the $600-700m range. Many of you will know that Seventh Generation is the pioneering sustainable paper goods company, named for the the Iroquois law that says decisions should be based on what’s best for the seventh generation to come.
Years ago, I heard Seventh Generation founder Jeffrey Hollander describe the company’s evolution, noting that when they started, they made scratchy, ugly paper towels that did not really absorb very well, cost twice as much, and were available in 1 or 2 stores within a 100-mile radius. By the time he was speaking, the products were more functional, with better aesthetics and comparable pricing, available almost everywhere… while keeping their superior environmental impact intact. But it took a while – years and years.
Ever since hearing this story, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for the scratchy ugly towels around me. And yes, there are plenty.
The very early days of any worthwhile endeavor are like the scratchy paper towel — the first mile of slow painful jogging, the first “Twinkle Little Star” tooted on the clarinet, the first attempts to reunite qualitative and quantitative measures of ROI…. it’s not always pretty. But without the scratchy ugly towel phase we can never get to the successful marathon, the Mozart concerto, the breakthrough investment approach.
Maybe we can cheer on the scratchy towels in our midst, instead of endless critique or dismissal. They might be the ugly, early seedlings of something we’ll one day treasure.