I.H.T. Special Report: Business of Food
Ben & Jerry’s Builds on Its Social-Values Approach
By GENEVIEVE ROBERTS
Published: November 16, 2010
LONDON — Ben & Jerry’s, which prides itself on having introduced the world’s first Fairtrade vanilla ice cream in 2006, announced this year that it planned to become the first entirely Fairtrade major ice cream brand globally by 2013.
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Ben & Jerry’s
The Fairtrade logo on food signifies to consumers that growers have received a fair price for their produce and that a portion of the purchase price will be used to further economic development.
In the four years since it started with vanilla, the brand has extended Fairtrade certification to its Chunky Monkey, Chocolate Macadamia and Vanilla Toffee Crunch flavors.
Fairtrade sourcing will be introduced across the entire range in Europe by 2011, helping farmers to receive a living wage, work under ethical conditions and invest in their communities and businesses.
“Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else,” said Jerry Greenfield, one half of the brand’s founding team.
Since Mr. Greenfield and Ben Cohen first set up shop in a gasoline station in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978, selling scoops of home-made ice cream — at a loss, it turned out — the brand has built a reputation for caring more about people than profit.
It has made plenty of profit since. “The more engaged in the community we’ve been, the more money we’ve made,” Mr. Cohen said.
Mr. Greenfield and Mr. Cohen say their business ethos was based largely on ignorance of standard business practice. “The way we approached business was like people on the street,” Mr. Greenfield said. “We didn’t go to business school, but we wanted to do ice cream. So we tried to give people what we wanted — a sense of fun.”
Their community awareness grew as their business expanded. In the 1980s, they created a charitable foundation to fund community-orientated projects, and in the 1990s they campaigned for children’s basic needs to be pushed up the political agenda in the United States.
Remarkably, the brand’s attachment to caring survived its takeover a decade ago by Unilever, the multinational maker of consumer products ranging from margarine to toothpastes and detergents.
Mr. Greenfield and Mr. Cohen, who no longer have any management role in the company but remain employed as advisers and brand ambassadors, say it has been a struggle to safeguard its social values-driven business model.
“It’s normal in business to maximize profits and do the minimum you can get away with,” Mr. Cohen said. “We’ve always done as much as we can for community and society, and hoped to make a reasonable profit. Money is not our main motivation.”
Unilever, which makes Lynx and Dove beauty products and Magnum ice creams, bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 for $326 million.
As a public company at the time, the board had no choice but to accept. Still, when Unilever surfaced as a suitor, Mr. Greenfield said, “we tried very hard to prevent the sale.”
Since the takeover, he said, protection of the brand “is a constant struggle, as they have a very different set of values.”
“Ben & Jerry’s is values led, whereas Unilever is more consumer driven,” he added.
Mr. Cohen, in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4 channel in Britain, also described the relationship in terms of conflict.
“We very carefully negotiated an acquisition agreement that was supposed to maintain the values of Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “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.”
For Mr. Greenfield, the issue is not only ethical: it goes to the core of the company’s business model. “Sometimes it seems as if companies find it easier to be kind to the environment than to the people around them,” he said.
But, “as a business supports the community, the community supports the business,” he noted. “We have an incredible connection, one that is more valuable than the ephemeral connection of cute advertising.”
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“We see business as being regular guys on the street,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors, to do our part.”
Yet, despite the expressed frustrations of the two founders, and the potential conflicts between the brand’s home-town folksiness and the norms of global capitalism, executives of the ice cream maker say Unilever has been remarkably proactive in learning from, and applying, the Ben & Jerry’s model across other business lines.
Philippa Marshall, head of sustainable development and communications at Ben & Jerry’s, said that all Lipton tea — another Unilever brand — was now sourced using sustainable methods. Starting this year, Lipton’s Yellow Label tea bags carry Rainforest Alliance certification; by 2015, certification by the alliance, which aims to conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods for workers, will be extended to all lines of Lipton tea bags sold worldwide.
Concerned about the overfishing of cod in the North Sea, Unilever also worked with W.W.F., the international wildlife conservation organization, to develop the Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s leading certification and eco-labeling program for sustainable fisheries, she said.
“Unilever definitely takes inspiration from Ben & Jerry’s,” Ms. Marshall said. “They use the phrase ‘doing well by doing good,’ which echoes the title of Ben and Jerry’s book in 1998.”
Reflecting the ice cream company’s influence on its giant parent, Unilever just this week announced a major initiative, which it has dubbed the Unilever sustainable living plan.
Under the plan, all agricultural raw materials used by Unilever will be produced in a sustainable way by 2020.
Announcing the plan on the company’s Web site, Unilever’s chief executive, Paul Polman, said it would “help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.”
“We will decouple our growth from our environmental impact, achieving absolute reductions across the product lifecycle,” Mr. Polman said. “Our goal is to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products. We will enhance the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in our supply chain.”
A company statement on the Web site cited Ben & Jerry’s as a model.
“Consumers around the world want reassurance that the products they buy are ethically sourced and protect the earth’s natural resources,” it said. “A growing number are choosing to buy brands such as Rainforest Alliance Certified Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry’s Fairtrade ice cream, and Small & Mighty concentrated laundry detergents.”
Small & Mighty is a line of superconcentrated detergents, which Unilever says reduces pollution from transport emissions and waste packaging.
“A more sustainable brand is often a more desirable brand,” Unilever said.