No need for a certification or audit to verify the altruistic credentials of Ben & Jerry’s – Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have been part of the purpose revolution for more than four decades.
B Corp in the States, Società Benefit in Italy, enterprise à mission in France… the name may change but the essence of what they are is the same: companies whose purpose is to work for the greater good. Some far-sighted entrepreneurs did not wait for the business world to get woke to practice a more respectful form of capitalism, favor the quality of a product over cost-per-unit or treat staff with respect. This was the case for Greenfield and Cohen, the men behind the eponymous ice-cream multinational. These two socially engaged businessmen have seen their vision stand the test of time, surviving the Regan Era greed-is-good ethos, and they did so while raking in vast amounts of money.
In 1978, these two childhood friends opened their first ice-cream outlet in a dusty corner of a service station in the outskirts of the Vermont capital, Burlington. This tiny city, smaller than the Scottish town of Perth, a progressive fiefdom of Bernie Sanders, the standard bearer of socialism in the country, proved to be fertile ground for Ben & Jerry’s brand of conscious capitalism. The company had already enjoyed moderate success when Time magazine launched them into the stratosphere in 1981, proclaiming Ben & Jerry’s to be ‘the best ice cream in the world’. That the ‘world’s best ice-cream’ was being produced in a company that functioned radically differently than its contemporaries was largely ignored at that stage.
Ben & Jerry’s staff were better paid, and the founders could not be paid more than five times the minimum salary at the company (a rule that was abolished in 1994). Social security, medical plans… these were not commonly available with blue-collar jobs at the time when liberalism reigned in the US. The company put the emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, buying milk from small independent producers when buying in bulk from a major producer would have been cheaper. These days 7.5% of the profits of Ben & Jerry’s goes to a foundation which runs welfare and education programs for the disadvantaged. Cohen and Greenfields’ vision might have been costly, but it has proven profitable in the long run.
Big business comes calling
In 2000 British-Dutch multinational Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s for 326 million dollars, the founders agreeing to sell on the condition that the new owners respect the Ben & Jerry’s way. The company first passed under the control of Frenchman Yves Couette, then the Norwegian Jostein Solhein, who both upheld the conscious capitalism principles of the founders who had since moved on to political activism. While the two are members of no political party, they take part in voter participation programs, and campaign against oil prospecting in Alaska and tax loopholes.In 2003 the Caring Dairy program saw Ben & Jerry’s pledged to only to produce products in a way that respects the environment and, 10 years later, undertook to phase out GMOs from their products. The company has gone from strength to strength since coming under the Unilever umbrella – in 2019 it sold more than 681 million dollars worth of ice-cream worldwide, overtaking eternal rival Häagen-Dazs.