Unlocking the power of green chemistry
Seventh Generation director Martin Wolf challenged conventional wisdom and helped heal the world by bringing Seventh Generation’s powerful plant-based products to the attention of legislators
Every year, we recognise pioneering individuals within the company who have brought our values to life and truly embody what it means to be part of Unilever. Our 2019 Heroes with Impact have gone above and beyond their day-to-day jobs. Their stories paint a picture of passion, purpose and drive.
Do household products need harmful chemicals to be effective?
Following the conventional wisdom of the past, manufacturers accepted some harsh or environmentally ‘unfriendly’ chemicals as a necessary ingredient of cleaners and detergents.
Martin Wolf, Director of Sustainability and Authenticity at Seventh Generation, thought otherwise. “We have to consider the impacts we are having on the environment,” he says. “Phosphates were being used in cleaning products that went down the drain into lakes and streams, causing an environmental problem.”
The household care industry was largely in denial, as Martin explains. “Industry said, ‘yes, but if you take the phosphates out, then your washing machine and your dishwasher won’t work’.”
With two degrees in chemistry and over 40 years of experience in industrial and environmental chemistry, Martin was well placed to lead an alternative approach at Seventh Generation. This Vermont-based company, which joined the Unilever family in 2016, manufactures eco-friendly products in home and personal care.
At Seventh Generation, Martin is known as ‘Scienceman’ – a tribute to the impressive solutions he has developed with fellow chemists. “What Seventh Generation was able to do was show you could make a product without phosphates that cleans as well as a conventional brand,” he says. Once state legislators saw that automatic dishwasher detergents without phosphates could work, they began passing phosphate bans in an effort to reverse eutrophication – an excessive richness of nutrients – in local lakes, rivers and streams. After several states had passed such legislation, the industry voluntarily agreed to stop using phosphates throughout the US.
But this is just one part of the impact that Martin has had. Complementing his role as a scientist, he has been active as an advocate for sustainability for over a decade. Working with other companies in the cleaning products industry, Martin helped develop criteria for more sustainable products that have been adopted by much of the consumer packaged goods industry and by many retailers in the US. These criteria now serve as a basis for retailers to evaluate products and their manufacturers using a common reporting platform.
Working with others at Seventh Generation, Martin has advocated for complete disclosure of ingredients in cleaning products. “Most people don’t realise that in the US, complete ingredient disclosure is required for food and personal care products, but not for cleaning products,” he says.
Martin again worked with industry associations to create a voluntary disclosure programme in 2010 and collaborated with NGOs and other companies to pass the California Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017. “If companies choose to include harsh or hazardous chemicals in their products, they should inform the product user so the user can decide if they are comfortable using the product,” he explains.
The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) – of which Unilever is a member – is the trade association representing the cleaning products industry in the US. Martin worked within the Institute to make sustainability central to the industry. He brought his powerful presence to the strategic advisory, regulatory, sustainability and consumer outreach programmes of the ACI, chairing three of its committees. The ACI has recognised him with a distinguished service award.
His advocacy has produced tangible results, bringing wide benefits to society. In 2014, he supported the Toxic-Free Families Act in Vermont, which protects children from toxic chemicals in products like toys and car seats. He is now working to reduce plastic waste and create a circular economy in which no material is ever perceived as waste.
Martin’s activities within the company and the industry embody Seventh Generation’s mission to leave the planet in the best possible state for generations to come. “I have as a personal purpose the goal of healing the earth and seeking justice,” he says – words that are as inspiring as his actions.