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Why Social Justice Matters at Ben & Jerry's

Why Social Justice Matters at Ben & Jerry's

The freewheeling ice cream company and pioneer of socially responsible business is far from stuck in the '60s.

Jed Oelbaum

Eli Miller

Eli Miller

“Systemic and institutionalized racism are the defining civil rights and social justice issues of our time,” reads the statement, released online in early October. “We’ve come to understand that to be silent about the violence and threats to the lives and well-being of Black people is to be complicit in that violence and those threats.” It concludes, “All lives will not matter until Black lives matter.” These words were signed not by an activist group or political organization, but by employees of a company perhaps best known for introducing the world to cookie dough ice cream.

Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont enterprise behind the statement, is no stranger to taking a stand on contentious issues. While social justice activism might seem like a PR headache for a dessert business, the brand has also been outspoken on marriage equality, child poverty, and climate change. Most recently, the company penned an open letter to President-Elect Donald Trump affirming these and other values, including a promise to “continue to be strong advocates for racial and social justice.”

The company’s Black Lives Matter statement is part of that racial and economic equity effort, which includes opposing voter ID laws, registering voters, and scrutinizing its own hiring practices and supply chains for instances of implicit bias. 

Of course, there would also have to be a new flavor: Empower Mint, a peppermint ice cream with brownie bits and fudge swirls, raises funds for the NAACP in North Carolina, and is tied into Ben & Jerry’s efforts to get the Voting Rights Act fully reinstated—the most recent presidential election was the first in 50 years in which minority voters were not protected by the landmark 1965 legislation. 

“There’ve been a lot of companies that have set out to engage with issues around racial tension in America,” Antonio McBroom, a Ben & Jerry’s franchise owner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, tells me over the phone. “But as far as having the boldness where you’re able to come out in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement specifically, our company is really at a different place on that journey.” 

McBroom started out scooping ice cream at the same Ben & Jerry’s shop he’d end up buying years later. Earlier this year, in coordination with the company’s larger efforts in the state, McBroom and his team drove a truck advertising Ben & Jerry’s “Democracy is in Your Hands” campaign to college campuses and events around North Carolina, registering people to vote and giving out free samples of Empower Mint. As weird as it may seem for an ice cream company to throw its weight behind get-out-the-vote initiatives, it does seem prescient after an even weirder election upset in which low voter turnout was reported to be a deciding factor.

“Ben & Jerry’s true power,” McBroom says, “lies in being a social justice company that uses ice cream as a tool for its work.”

That’s pretty big talk for a business that’s now owned by a giant multinational corporation. But it’s hard to deny that the company’s dedication to making the world a better place has been an essential part of Ben & Jerry’s identity for more than 35 years. Entry-level workers at company plants earn about twice the federal minimum wage. And 7.5 percent of pretax profits go to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which delivers grants to support “grassroots activism for social and environmental justice.”

Now, the company, founded on a generational ethos—try finding an article about Ben & Jerry’s that doesn’t include the word “hippies”—is working to weave in the emerging social justice concerns so vital to a younger generation.

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Image courtesy Ben & Jerry's/Unilever

Image courtesy Ben & Jerry's/Unilever

Founded by friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two shaggy entrepreneurs with a taste for the weird and a worldview minted in ’60s counterculture, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade began as a tiny operation in 1978. Quickly the company became known not only for its wildly original, cleverly named flavors—Cherry Garcia, Cool Britannia, and Economic Crunch, to name a few—but also for its owners’ commitment to progressive causes and the welfare of their workers.

It wasn’t just those causes, but also the culture of the company that enamored people of the twosome’s frozen treats. It was small; people knew each other. And though it was later scrapped, for years Ben & Jerry’s had a rule that the highest-paid employee would make no more than five times what an entry-level worker earned. Free Cone Day, an annual tradition since 1979, is exactly what it sounds like. And just for fun, in the early ’80s Ben & Jerry’s cobbled together what was at the time the world’s largest ice cream sundae—it was served in a swimming pool and weighed more than 27,000 pounds.

Positioned as a joyous, slightly wacky company that gave a damn, Ben & Jerry’s prospered. But Cohen and Greenfield struggled with growth. In April 2000, after years of trying to stay independent and balance social causes with their publicly held business’s growing needs, the two co-founders finally accepted an acquisition offer from multinational corporate giant Unilever.

The sale was kind of a bummer. Though they took steps to ensure the company would maintain some semblance of its social mission, Cohen and Greenfield were publicly frustrated with the acquisition process. Customers and longtime employees feared the Ben & Jerry’s they knew and loved was gone. “If Ben & Jerry’s was a kind of corporate Woodstock, this sale was its Altamont,” wrote Antony Page and Robert A. Katz in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Once a darling of progressive consumers and driven by the philosophy of passionate founders, in the decade after the sale the company found itself accused of slipping away from its ideals. (One employee I speak to refers to this period as “the dark years.”)  Unilever started laying people off. Ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup found their way into the recipes, eventually causing the brand to remove the phrase “all natural” from packaging. Franchisees felt abandoned, a feeling that worsened as the economy sank into recession. Longtime employees began to think that Unilever wasn’t taking the social mission very seriously. Even Cohen and Greenfield themselves, now without formal roles, reportedly “expressed concerns that the company has shifted away from its original mission of social responsibility.”

Cohen and Greenfield still occasionally help promote the brand, but for the most part, they’re focusing on other zany ways to support their causes. The two have stamped dollar bills to fight big money in politics, created an (unauthorized) ice cream flavor for Bernie Sanders, and were arrested along with 300 other protesters at a demonstration in April.

Over the last seven or eight years, though, a few factors have brought Ben & Jerry’s into a new working stride that seems to balance its mixed bag of priorities: For one, the independent board of directors, established by Cohen and Greenfield as a term of the sale, stepped up, enforcing its powers to maintain Ben & Jerry’s values.

Ben & Jerry's at the People's Climate March in 2014. Photo courtesy Ben & Jerry's/Unilever

Ben & Jerry's at the People's Climate March in 2014. Photo courtesy Ben & Jerry's/Unilever

Jeff Furman, who chairs the board, has been friends with Cohen since they worked together at a school for “struggling and unruly” teenagers in upstate New York, years before the company was founded. (“We were staff, not the teens, but people often couldn’t tell the difference,” he said in a 2014 lecture.) He wrote the company’s first business plan, has helped run its charitable foundation for years, and is jokingly said to be the ampersand in “Ben & Jerry’s.”

Furman is both an accountant and an attorney, and though he may have appeared just as bearded and disheveled as Cohen and Greenfield in the company’s early days, he was their secret weapon in business matters, and an enthusiastic ally in their cause-driven work. A consummate activist, over the years Furman has been a part of too many causes to list here, particularly pertaining to education and fair wages. Now, as the board chair and only remaining major player from the founding generation, Furman is the de facto defender of Ben & Jerry’s long-term integrity and unique culture.

“Unilever has two seats on the board,” Furman tells me. “When [the independent board] began, it was new to everybody, so I think [Unilever’s representatives and the rest of the board] sort of didn’t pay much attention to each other. And then we had a little struggle in ’08, and ’09. But we cleared the air from that struggle, and things have moved on really pretty well since then.” Furman pauses. “I would say beyond anybody’s expectations,” he adds, sounding a little surprised himself.

I ask him to clarify what the struggles were. Furman says conflicts developed over “gray areas” of the relationship between the independent board and the parent company.

“Like what was happening with our products, were they maintaining their high quality standards or not?” says Furman. “What do you do around this social mission, what risks do you take? And how do you go out into the public, and how do you make it impactful? We might have different opinions about GMO foods—how do you deal with those conflicts, when Ben & Jerry’s is non-GMO, and Unilever has a pro-GMO stance?”

That may be putting it politely. “We tried to be professional, but we also believed that Unilever was ultimately evil,” Jennifer Henderson, another veteran board member and chair before Furman, told Brad Edmondson in his 2014 book, Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s.

After years of frustration and clashes, a series of negotiations and legal challenges largely broke in the board’s favor, allowing it to take steps to restore the brand’s legacy mission. Almost simultaneously, a cultural convergence set the tone for progress: Conventional corporate wisdom had grown to embrace the benefits of values-led businesses, and Unilever had, in a way, become a little more like Ben & Jerry’s.

Unilever, a worldwide behemoth, was perceived as something of a stereotypical corporate boogeyman, with all the negative externalities and environmental problems one might expect. But the Dutch conglomerate slowly began its own journey toward integrating forward-thinking initiatives into business in the mid-aughts, and with the introduction of CEO Paul Polman in 2009, sustainability was announced to be “the company’s top priority.”

In 2015, The New York Times reported on the corporation’s increasingly green ambitions. “Not only does the Unilever sustainable living plan pledge to cut the company’s environmental impact in half by 2020, it also vows to improve the health of one billion people and enhance livelihoods for millions, all while doubling Unilever’s sales,” wrote The Times, though noting the company faces high hurdles in enacting these goals.

“Racial equity and economic justice are not advertising slogans.”

The board’s advocacy, combined with Unilever’s increasing understanding of what made the Ben & Jerry’s brand successful in the first place, allowed for reconciliation and progress. And the company once again has been able to pursue its social mission in an authentic way.

“Racial equity and economic justice are not advertising slogans,” says Edmondson, talking about high-profile missteps other brands have made in trying to insert themselves into social justice conversations. “In order to really be effective in addressing those problems, you have to go through a long listening process, you have to really open yourself up to the people who are pushing for social change. … If you do it top down, it’s almost always going to fail.”

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Ben & Jerry’s South Burlington headquarters is housed in a low brick building in a small corporate park. Inside, I’m given a strong cup of coffee and led through a quiet suite of pastel-colored offices. It has the feel of an elementary school after classes let out, when there’s no one left in the building but the chess club and a few teachers grading quizzes. It’s almost unsurprising to see a bunch of kids in a bank of cubicles, participating in an after-school tutoring program.

A handful of youngish, casually dressed employees hunch over computers or clump in a corner tête-à-tête. I get into a brief conversation with a marketing guy in a baseball cap and tell him I’m interviewing Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s activism manager. “Give him hell,” he jokes.

In the small office where I interview Miller, a laminated copy of the company’s three-part mission statement, outlining its economic, social, and ice cream-making goals, hangs on the wall. Originally written in 1988 and amended a few times throughout the years, here it’s basically the Constitution. Miller says he knows most of it by heart.

Miller wears black-framed glasses over weary eyes; he’s just returned from speaking in Philadelphia at an event for other socially conscious businesses. Despite that, he’s an animated, intense conversationalist. As an employee, his perspective on Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever is exceptional: He first worked at Ben & Jerry’s in the late ’90s and through the sale before leaving to work with Greenpeace, a nonprofit historically critical of Unilever. He also worked with Seventh Generation (another Vermont values-oriented business recently purchased by Unilever), eventually coming full circle and returning to the ice cream business four years ago. 

I’m here to ask him about the process behind Ben & Jerry’s equity work, particularly the statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Though the Black Lives Matter movement to challenge institutionalized racism and brutality against African Americans has been going strong since 2013, Ben & Jerry’s involvement was sparked by its Democracy is in Your Hands campaign—the project that franchise owner Antonio McBroom was a part of in North Carolina—which launched in May.

The Democracy is in Your Hands ice cream truck and voter registration table at Wake Forest University in October. Photo courtesy Antonio McBroom.

The Democracy is in Your Hands ice cream truck and voter registration table at Wake Forest University in October. Photo courtesy Antonio McBroom.

“[Democracy is in Your Hands] was focused on the twin evils in our political system of unregulated, undisclosed, and unlimited amounts of money in the political system, and this sort of coordinated attempt to put barriers in front of voters, in this case, really a strategic attempt to disenfranchise Black voters,” says Miller.

In North Carolina specifically, the latter issue was starkly apparent to the Ben & Jerry’s team. A 2013 state law imposed such strict voter ID and process regulations that large parts of it were overturned earlier this year. The company’s campaign in that state clearly intersected with Black Lives Matter’s demands for full access to the right to vote for all people, part of the platform the coalition released in August.

Miller tells me that although he and another person on the Ben & Jerry’s staff wrote the first draft of the statement, they opened it to edits and vetting from those in the movement. And composing the final version was a team effort with partner organizations. “So whether that’s the folks at Color Of Change, the online digital platform that’s hosting our petition on the Voting Rights Act, whether that’s our friends at the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP… we wanted to make sure that we were contextualizing the issues in the right way, that we were saying things that were consistent with the way activists in the movement see the issues. These are issues where words matter.”

“We were just trying to talk it through, and get a better idea of what the Black Lives Matter movement was all about.”

According to McBroom “before the BLM statement came out, we had a meeting with the Greensboro BLM chapter leadership… And we were just trying to talk it through, and get a better idea of what the Black Lives Matter movement was all about.” He adds there was “a lot of translation going on” between the ice cream company and the activists.

(I reached out to Black Lives Matter, both through the movement’s official website and by contacting individual activists, for comment on the company’s statement and the Greensboro meeting. I have yet to receive a response but will update this article if I do.)

“The phrase they use at Ben and Jerry’s is ‘learning journey,’ ” says Edmondson, who has written about the company for years. “And I kind of cringe when I hear that because it seems so touchy-feely. But what they mean is that they don’t really announce something like support for Black Lives Matter until they’ve spent a year basically having field trips to social justice campaign offices and inviting the activists to talk. So they really get to know the people they’re working with.”

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Years ago, Cohen and Greenfield, faced with pressure to take the Unilever deal, had to enshrine both a set of values and their freewheeling way of approaching those values into Ben & Jerry’s. This was a translation of the personal—so much of the company was wrapped up in the character of its founders—into the institutional, with documents like the company’s three-part mission statement becoming a kind of North Star. 

And yet, on their own, no amount of structural agreements or mission statements can really hold the dream aloft. “If you don’t have the right people in place, it doesn't matter,” Miller tells me. Ben & Jerry’s is now tackling another, more gradual metamorphosis: allowing the company’s ethos to evolve and grow, past charismatic founders, past corporatization, to meet the evolving mores of a generation that was never a part of Cohen and Greenfield’s heyday. Furman, the last board member from the founding generation, is considering his next move.

Jeff Furman at the Empower Mint launch in North Carolina. Photo courtesy Ben & Jerry's/Unilever.

Jeff Furman at the Empower Mint launch in North Carolina. Photo courtesy Ben & Jerry's/Unilever.

“The whole board is working on that transition of my leaving and other people stepping into that role,” Furman tells me. “When I leave there will be no one who was there from the beginning that’s been so involved. Neither Ben nor Jerry is very involved [right now]. So that’ll be a different moment. And we’ll see how we do. We’ll see how we do in five years. We’ll see if it’s still good, or ‘Oh boy, it’s beginning to look like Monsanto.’ ”

The chances of that kind of backslide, though, may shrink even without Ben & Jerry’s careful internal calculus. A sizable majority of millennials are reportedly willing to spend more on companies that stand for something. They are also “much savvier than their parents,” according to a 2015 study, and “have an innate understanding of marketing and of their value as consumers.” This means young people also demand more integrity and transparency from socially conscious brands.

While in Reagan’s greed-is-good ’80s, a funny ice cream flavor benefiting a charitable cause might have been revolutionary, the standards are higher now. Maybe the biggest change is in how consumers see the company in light of its socially conscious branding. Ben & Jerry’s cannot just be a willing donor to charity—the company is expected to be accountable, and the public has increasingly applied pressure when the ice cream purveyor has fallen short. Sure, Ben & Jerry’s has certainly stumbled in enacting its mission. But those failings have to be measured against the ambitious, whirling mechanism the company created to do this work, the messy human tenacity behind the evolution of its mission, the meetings with activists, the soul-searching, and the local store owners out there doing voter registration.

McBroom and Van Jones. Photo courtesy of Antonio McBroom. 

McBroom and Van Jones. Photo courtesy of Antonio McBroom. 

McBroom, who is 30, sees himself as both part of a new generation with different priorities as well as an inheritor of Ben & Jerry’s mission. He says, “over the last couple of years we’ve worked on building these new strategies to not only connect with the issues of our traditional core [audience], but also issues that are important now, that affect millennials,” he says, referencing the company’s support of marriage equality and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

He says that there is a lot of effort to listen to the “young leaders” in the company like himself, and that just because they aren’t running Ben & Jerry’s, it doesn’t mean Cohen and Greenfield don’t stay close to the company they founded and its mission. McBroom says he’s met them several times to discuss the company’s equity initiatives.

“Those guys are the founding fathers,” he laughs. “I look forward to any chance I can get one of their ears.... I was actually able to have coffee with Jerry about three weeks ago, when I was in Vermont, just to kind of get his thoughts on where the company is going and how the social mission, specifically, is being brought to life in North Carolina. That conversation really helped me form my 2017 plans.”

McBroom says those plans will include more political outreach and mobilization efforts, and he’s grateful the company helps set up employees like him to be a part of these issues and “dial them up as high as they want to go” on a local level. If you visit the Chapel Hill Ben & Jerry’s, he tells me, try the location’s special, benefiting the UNC Dance Marathon, an event to raise money for the North Carolina Children’s Hospital. The “For the Kids!” milkshake mixes chocolate chip cookie dough and sweet cream and cookies ice creams, topped with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles.


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