ColumnBen & Jerry’s has long been a poster child for socially responsible business, with its hippie branding, activist leanings, and emphasis on incorporating “happiness” at every step of the ice cream supply chain.
The company’s story begins in 1978 with an abandoned Burlington, Vermont, gas station and a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield wanted to create a company that would churn out the ice cream flavors they always dreamed off, filled with cookies, candy, fruits, nuts, and other fixings. They sourced their dairy from local farmers and christened their signature blends with quirky names like “Chunky Monkey” and “Phishfood.” Within a few years, Ben & Jerry’s had expanded to locations throughout Vermont, and in 1984, it became a publicly owned company.
But then the fairy tale turns cautionary. Ben & Jerry’s continued to grow through the 1980s and 1990s, but according to Fast Company, “the Ben & Jerry’s alternative management style lacked the fiscal and managerial discipline market analysts and investors demanded.” When British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever stepped up to acquire the company for $326 million in 2001, the board was forced to accept out of obligation to its shareholders.
“We very carefully negotiated an acquisition agreement that was supposed to maintain the values of Ben & Jerry’s,” Greenfield told The New York Times in 2010. “What we are learning is, if you are owned by a corporate that, despite whatever words they might say, does not share those values, it’s incredibly difficult to maintain those values.”
But just how much have Ben & Jerry’s values strayed in the 12 years since its Unilever acquisition? This week’s Behind The Label dives into the good, bad, and questionable.
Since its inception, Ben & Jerry’s has been a sustainability pioneer, from sourcing ethically produced ingredients to designing recyclable packaging. In the 1990s, it was one of the first companies to wage a public battle against rBGH, the Monsanto-developed growth hormone often injected into cows to increase milk production.
Despite acquisition, the company’s commitment to social responsibility doesn’t seem to have wavered in the past 12 years; in fact, it appears to have strengthened.
The company has long sourced its ingredients from fair trade sources – bananas for Chunky Monkey come from the El Guabo cooperative in Ecuador, for instance, while the brownies in Half-Baked are cooked up by Greyston Bakery, a Bronx-based social enterprise providing jobs and skills training for people who face barriers to employment. And in 2010, Ben & Jerry’s made an even more ambitious commitment when it pledged to source all possible ingredients from certified Fair Trade suppliers by the end of 2013. On its website, you can mouse over each flavor to see which ingredients are fair trade and which are still in the process of being certified.
And then there was the recent announcement that Ben & Jerry’s would be converting to entirely non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) ingredients by the end of 2013 and adjusting its packaging to reflect responsible GMO labeling standards by 2014. Ben & Jerry’s has publicly announced its support of the GMO Right-to-Know Labeling Movement, and its founders regularly speak out in support of GMO labeling efforts in Washington, Vermont, and Connecticut.
But while Ben & Jerry’s has been a vocal advocate of GMO labeling, its parent company has sided with the opposition. Official documents reveal that Unilever spent $467,100 on efforts against Proposition 37, the California labeling act that was defeated last November.
This finding led the Organic Consumers Association to call for a Ben & Jerry’s boycott, until the company pledged to donate the same amount to pro-labeling campaigns in Washington and Vermont.
It’s bad enough that Ben & Jerry’s offers NO organic ice cream flavors. And that the company hasn’t yet eliminated genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from all of its products. But propping up its “progressive” image by telling consumers the company supports GMO labeling, while refusing to help the campaign out with what it really needs: cold hard cash? C’mon guys, you can do better.
And despite sourcing non-GMO, fair trade, and rBGH-free ingredients when possible, the sum of Ben & Jerry’s parts is still not entirely natural. In 2010, the Center for the Science in the Public Interest publicly requested that Ben & Jerry’s remove “all natural” language from its labeling, since many of its products contained alkalized cocoa, high fructose corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil. While Ben & Jerry’s maintains that it used the natural labeling in accordance with FDA standards, it complied with the request to prevent consumer confusion.
While Ben & Jerry’s has been able to operate with relative independence since its acquisition 12 years ago, comments from its founders reveal internal conflicts.
In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Cohen famously described the relationship as a “forced marriage”:
Unilever quite likes to hold up Ben & Jerry’s as kind of the poster child of socially responsible business and does use that to try to give an example of ‘here is how socially concerned Unilever is, you know, we have the Ben & Jerry’s brand’. And you know Ben and Jerry’s does happen to be very high profile but when Unilever holds up Ben & Jerry’s as ‘our example of how socially responsible we are’, you know, we should understand that Unilever is what? – a $40bn-$50bn business and we’re a little piece of that.
So it is greenwash? the reporter asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ben responded.
On the other hand, Unilever has emerged in recent years as model for corporate social responsibility, most notably with its much-hailed Sustainable Living Plan. The plan lays out some pretty ambitious goals, from sourcing all of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020 to halving greenhouse gas impact by the same year. The plan’s annual progress report, released Monday, revealed significant progress toward those goals.
Many speculate that it was partly due to the Ben & Jerry’s partnership that Unilever executives decided to take on such an ambitious project. And according to B Corp’s full impact assessment, Ben & Jerry’s has achieved impressive marks when it comes to governance, workers, community, and environment – enough to earn it B Corp status last year.
Ben and Jerry may grumble, but it appears that their company is not only in capable hands, but that it is also playing a significant role in the socially responsible makeover of one of the world’s largest conglomerates. The Ben & Jerry’s-Unilever marriage may have been forced, but it seems to be working.