Ben & Jerry’s is thought of as the ice cream company with heart and soul. From the start, its founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield set out to prove that business can play a positive role in society.
In 1978, after taking a $5 correspondence course in ice cream-making from Penn State and making a $12,000 investment ($4,000 borrowed), Ben and Jerry began selling ice cream from a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont. While the company name references only two men, a third man, Jeff Furman (a lawyer and accountant) is considered the ampersand in Ben & Jerry’s and a driving force in the company’s social responsibility efforts.
Utne Reader described them as three men who shared ideals formed in the 1960s and tempered by Vietnam and Watergate. They were smart and creative but suspicious of big business, painfully aware of injustice, and looking for better ways to live.
Social mission as a guiding business principle
In 1988, Ben & Jerry’s became one of the first companies in the world to make a social mission integral to its business and inseparable from its product and economic goals. Its social mission: use the company in innovative ways to make the world a better place.
When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the company became a wholly-owned subsidiary but fought to retain its social consciousness. Through a unique merger agreement, Ben & Jerry’s established an independent board of directors so it could maintain the company’s mission and preserve its values—a board that has the right to challenge Unilever at any time if it feels those values are compromised.
In September 2012, Ben & Jerry’s was certified as a B corp and became the first and only wholly-owned subsidiary of a public company to do so. Its publicly-available impact assessment shows how the company is doing in its governance and for the environment, workers, and community. (The B Corp model can ensure companies provide benefits to society in a way that’s transparent, balanced, and people can believe in.)
“We wanted to constantly challenge ourselves to be better,” said Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s Director of Social Mission. “This model provides the rigor and standards to ensure that we are living up to our own mission and that we push further.”
The measures of success
Creating linked prosperity for suppliers, employees, farmers, franchisees, customers, and neighbors—everyone connected to Ben & Jerry’s—is how the company defines success. They operate to benefit people and communities, support social and environmental justice, and give back.
Sourcing & purchasing ingredients. The company uses its purchasing power to buy Fair Trade Certified base ingredients of sugar, cocoa, banana, coffee and vanilla.
In manufacturing, Ben & Jerry’s works to reduce its footprint and has offset 22,400 tons of CO2 emissions since 2002. The company is also actively involved in climate justice, mandatory GMO labeling, peace building and many more issues.
Ben & Jerry’s: Giving back
Their efforts to give back go beyond improving quality of life for local communities. In addition to donating more than 5% of profits to charity:
- Ben & Jerry’s foundation engages its employees in philanthropy and social change work, and supports grassroots activism and community organizing for social and environmental justice around the country. In 1991, the foundation was restructured to be employee-led, and employees make all the decisions about grants. In 2014, the foundation won the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s award for a Corporate Grantmaker.
- The foundation funds the Vermont Community Action Team (CAT) grant program for an array of programs, and prioritizes support for basic human needs and the underserved, including seniors, at-risk youth and low income communities. In addition to grants, employees work together on several large-scale community service projects each year.
- PartnerShops are independently-owned Ben & Jerry’s scoop shops operated by community-based nonprofit organizations, and run as social enterprises. They offer job and entrepreneurial training to youth and young adults who may face barriers to employment.
Ben & Jerry’s has set a high CSR bar. Not every business has the resources and ability to pursue social responsibility with such fervor, but any business can get started. Inspired to discover how? Contact JustGive today; we’ll help.
– Candy Culver