When Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream attended a meeting of top American CEOs, they were shocked – shocked! — to find the CEOs had high ethical standards, didn’t exploit their workers, their communities or the environment, and supported worthy nonprofits. But as unevolved children of the ‘60s, Ben and Jerry cling to the mantra that all businesses (other than theirs and an anointed few), big and small, are by nature evil or at least amoral.
Speaking in Edinburg at the UTRGV Distinguished Speakers series on the “Entrepreneurial Spirit, Social Responsibility and Radical Business Philosophy” the duo riffed on their book Double Dip: How to Run a Values-Led Business and Make Money, Too. They admit that a commitment to social causes creates strong customer and employee loyalty.
Ben & Jerry’s rags-to-riches story, as told by Greenfield, is spell-binding. With a few thousand dollars, a certificate from Penn State’s $5 correspondence course on ice cream making and a used, five-gallon motorized rock-salt ice cream maker, Ben & Jerry opened their business in Burlington, Vt., because no other ice cream parlors were there. They sold 50 gallons of ice cream daily in the summer. In the winter, they had to diversify and began delivering their ice cream to restaurants and small groceries, soon expanding into neighboring states and fighting off national brands. The duo played all the rolls: scooper, driver, taste tester.
Eventually Ben & Jerry’s became a business with $2 million in sales, and the founders were appalled. “We were not ice cream guys anymore. We were becoming businessmen (writing memos, hiring and firing people). It was not our idea of a good time as children of the ’60s,” Greenfield said. “We felt like our business was becoming a cog in the economic machine. We wanted to get out.” Then a friend suggested, if they didn’t like the way business was run, they should change it.
Deciding to grow the business in way consistent with their values of supporting their employees and the community, they held the first ever public stock option in Vermont.
“We were looking for our neighbors to ‘get a scoop of the action,’” Cohen said, hoping to make them co-owners and prosper along with the business. They set a minimum purchase price of $125 and raised more than expected, like an early-days crowdfunding effort. A few years later, they set up a foundation to receive 7.5% of Ben & Jerry’s pre-tax profits with the idea of funding social causes. Grant requests poured in, and unmet human needs multiplied.
The two asked, why weren’t all businesses working to improve the quality of life for everyone? “What Jerry and I discovered is that there is a spiritual aspect to business,” said Cohen. “Business has become the most powerful force in our society,” supplanting religion and government. They believe businesses act in their own, narrow self-interest instead of improving the overall quality of life.
Ben & Jerry’s redefined their bottom line to include both the profit made and the improvements made for lives in the community. “Once you change the mindset, the opportunities for combining the two, it’s limitless,” Cohen said. Money can be the root of all opportunity.”
Examples of Ben & Jerry’s social responsibility activism abound in their fair-trade ingredients. They buy coffee directly from a coffee co-op in Mexico and wild blueberries harvested by a Maine tribe. The Brazil nuts used in their rainforest crunch are responsibly harvested. The brownies in one flavor are purchased from a Bronx bakery that employs ex-cons and former drug addicts.
Ben & Jerry’s operates franchised ice cream shops, but franchisee fees are waived for those shops run by nonprofit social service agencies, like those running at-risk youth job training programs.
Being known as social responsible meets another set of customers’ needs. “It builds incredible consumer loyalty. We form a bond with consumers based on shared values. It differentiates our products, motivates employees and creates a unique selling point,” Greenfield said. “It helps us with recruiting.”
Ben & Jerry sold their company to Unilever 15 years ago but still work there, without responsibilities and without authority. They roam the country espousing social responsibility, although many assert the greatest good a business can do is to provide good jobs and secondarily support community causes.
The strongest tool of business is its voice, Cohen said, but he deplored that many large
corporations use that voice only in their self-interest. Switching into revival-preacher mode, Cohen and Greenfield asked the audience to raise their hands in support of getting corporations and their donations out of politics via a constitutional amendment. Caught by the evangelical spirit, many did raise their hands before reaching out those hands for free ice cream.
This article by Rosemary Couture appears in the May 2016 print edition of Valley Business Report