IMPACT

Ben & Jerry's Showed America What Real Corporate Activism Looks Like

Amid Black Lives Matter protests, brands scrambled to get on the social justice bandwagon. The ice cream company has been helping drive it for 30 years.
Ben & Jerry's wants to end white supremacy, among other progressive goals.
Ben & Jerry's wants to end white supremacy, among other progressive goals.

On June 2, while many other brands in the United States were posting a black square to their social media accounts and making carefully worded statements about racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Ben & Jerry’s had a much more direct message. The ice cream company tweeted an image that in bold letters read: “WE MUST DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY.”

Among the flood of bland and empty corporate platitudes, the post stood out. It was no viral fluke, but the product of decades of brand development around social activism.

“We use all the tools we have to sell ice cream and put them in service of grassroots activists,” said Chris Miller, the corporate activism manager for Ben & Jerry’s ― a rare position in corporate America. 

Too often, corporate efforts to speak out about racism are vague or clumsy, dismissed by many as “woke-washing” ― that is, speaking out for fear of losing customers and profits rather than from a genuine desire to push social change. In some cases, people in outright anger have pointed to the huge disconnect between these newly proclaimed commitments to anti-racist policies and companies’ histories of low wages, discrimination and dangerous work conditions.

But Ben & Jerry’s didn’t mince words.

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy,” reads a longer statement on its website. “What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning.”

From same-sex marriage to criminal justice reform to campaign finance, Ben & Jerry’s has taken a stance on nearly every major social issue of the last three decades. It’s also tried to reflect those values internally — to varying degrees of success — by sourcing ethical products throughout its supply chain and paying Vermont employees a liveable hourly wage.

By its own admission, the ice cream brand has more work to do to live up to its promises. But it bucks the corporate trend with a business model that treats its product as a way to create progressive change, not just generate profit. 

“I think Ben & Jerry’s is probably the most prominent ... for-profit corporation that has such an active and strong stance on racial justice,” said Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management specializing in identity and diversity at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “They set the bar really high, that’s the reality.”

As other companies struggle to convince consumers of their commitment to progressive issues, Ben & Jerry’s track record means that when it says it wants to upend white supremacy, customers generally believe it.

The ice cream company began in a former gas station in Burlington, Vermont.
The ice cream company began in a former gas station in Burlington, Vermont.

The ‘Peace Pop’ Protest

When co-founders and childhood friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started Ben & Jerry’s out of a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978, they just wanted to make good ice cream. But over the next decade, they began to feel that the company should try to have a positive impact beyond its product.

In 1988, they wrote their first mission statement. “It said that the social mission was about using the power of business to address social and environmental issues. Or something like that!” Greenfield told HuffPost. 

But they quickly realized that what they’d come up with was too vague to be effective. “There needed to be more specificity,” said Greenfield. They regrouped and landed on a new focus: They would prioritize progressive values, especially equality and sustainability.

The company took up its first political issue not long after: protesting the billions of dollars the Reagan administration was spending on nuclear weapons while 1 in 5 children in America was living in poverty. 

It’s a matter of getting up and being who you are every day, and when you live by your values, that’s just what you do. Americus Reed, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business

At the time, Cohen and Greenfield had been developing a chocolate-covered ice cream bar. Cohen proposed using its wrapper to lay out demands that the federal government shift 1% of its defense budget toward peace-promoting projects.

And so, in 1988 the “Peace Pop” was born ― the first time Ben & Jerry’s had linked its product with activism.

The move was controversial. Some staff worried that consumers would see the brand as “unpatriotic” for condemning government policy and boycott the ice cream. “Ben pretty much put his foot down and said, ‘This is what the company is about,’” Greenfield recalled. “We came out with the product, and none of those bad things happened.”

The idea that a business would take a public stance on social issues was unusual in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Companies were beginning to speak out about climate change, reassuring customers — sometimes deceptively — that their products and services were environmentally friendly. But business owners did not tend to be vocal about issues that were not seen as directly related to their operations. 

When Cohen and Greenfield sat on panels and visited business schools to talk about their company, some of their counterparts advised them against supporting “controversial” issues, telling them it would hurt their bottom line.

Ben Cohen (right) and Jerry Greenfield promote their latest offering, the Peace Pop, outside the United Nations in New York o
Ben Cohen (right) and Jerry Greenfield promote their latest offering, the Peace Pop, outside the United Nations in New York on Aug. 17, 1988.

But 30 years on from the Peace Pop, Ben & Jerry’s is still doing just fine, mixing its ongoing activism with a thriving business. Politically and provocatively named products like “Justice ReMix’d,” a flavor the company developed to promote criminal justice reform, and “Pecan Resist,” a flavor supporting anti-Trump activism, have become the company’s signature, something its customers have come to expect.

“To me, Ben & Jerry’s are basically activists who happen to sell ice cream,” said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business. “When people say, ‘I’m a Ben & Jerry’s customer,’ they’re not just saying, ‘I like the ice cream’ ― they’re saying, ‘I believe in those values.’”

‘Linked Prosperity’

The ice cream brand made $681.5 million in revenue last year, from hundreds of storefronts across the country and supermarket sales of pints and bars. Cohen and Greenfield are no longer involved in managing the business. Cohen, the company’s first CEO (and the only one of the two founders to hold that position), stepped down in 1994. 

In 2000, the duo sold their company to Unilever ― a move approved by Ben & Jerry’s board despite Cohen admitting at the time that he would have preferred the company to stay independent. The sale sparked accusations that they had sold out. But despite being acquired by a multinational multibillion-dollar conglomerate, Ben & Jerry’s fought to maintain its progressive reputation. The company’s acquisition agreement even included a requirement that Ben & Jerry’s spend at least $1.1 million a year on its activism.

Since then, a department has been created within the company dedicated to advancing social justice causes. The team is helmed by Miller, whose background, like that of many of the employees he supervises, is heavy on policy and advocacy. Before joining Ben & Jerry’s over six years ago, he worked for then-Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders and Greenpeace USA.

Rather than just hand out one-time large-dollar donations, as corporations often do in their efforts to demonstrate a commitment to social justice, Miller’s team also develops long-term partnerships with grassroots organizations, using the company’s corporate muscle to amplify their activism. 

“We do make donations to support our groups,” Miller said, “but we’re also experts at framing, communication, buying media, using digital, and running social channels.”

The company’s focus on racial inequality and criminal justice reform is partly a reaction to its own lack of diversity — like Vermont, its corporate office is roughly 95% white, though its scoop shops are more diverse — as well as an acknowledgment of the different experiences that white and Black Americans have, said Miller.

Ben & Jerry's unveiled the flavor Justice ReMix'd in 2019 as part of its multiyear campaign for criminal justice reform i
Ben & Jerry's unveiled the flavor Justice ReMix'd in 2019 as part of its multiyear campaign for criminal justice reform in partnership with the Advancement Project National Office. The two organizations have worked together in St. Louis to close the Workhouse jail and in Miami to slow the school-to-prison pipeline.

Last year, the Advancement Project National Office ― a civil rights group that matches national partners with small grassroots organizations ― paired Ben & Jerry’s with Close the Workhouse, a campaign against a St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse, where 90% of the population is Black and the vast majority are unable to leave pending trial simply because they cannot afford to post bail. 

Inez Bordeaux, an activist and member of the organizing team for Close the Workhouse, said they decided to work with the company because of its “activist footprint.” She was surprised at Ben & Jerry’s earnest and humble approach. 

“[Ben & Jerry’s] never came in and tried to say, ‘We think you should do it this way.’ They came in and said, ‘What are you working on? How can we support you?’” she said. “You don’t run into many people like that — you don’t run into many major ... corporations like that.”

When the campaign was organizing around a direct action — like urging St. Louis residents to call their representatives in advance of a budget hearing — a team of about a dozen Ben & Jerry’s employees would help spread the word on social media channels. In June 2019, Cohen visited St. Louis to give a press conference at City Hall, urging the mayor to close the jail. The publicity helped, according to Bordeaux: On July 17 of this year, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a bill to close down the Workhouse by the end of 2020. 

The success belonged to the activists whose “pressure was already pretty high,” Bordeaux said. “But to then have Ben & Jerry’s come to your city and call out the mayor ... it really helped give the campaign more leverage.”

Ben & Jerry’s has tried to ensure that the values it promotes publicly extend to its own workforce. The company starts its entry-level Vermont employees at $18.13 an hour ― $7.17 above the state’s minimum wage ― and allows workers to take home three pints of ice cream at the end of every workday. The company also stopped including criminal background checks in the first stage of its application process in 2015, in solidarity with a national campaign to remove the check box that typically appears on job applications asking about applicants’ criminal history.

As far as capitalism goes, they’re doing a pretty good job. Emily Barman, a sociology professor at Boston University

Ben & Jerry’s also formalized the idea of putting social and environmental impact on a par with profit-making when it became a B Corporation in 2012: a nonprofit certification that requires a company to show that it creates value for all those it deals with, not just its investors.

“Ben & Jerry’s first stood out as one of the pioneers of embedding social purpose in their business,” said Veena Harbaugh, the director of marketing for B Lab U.S. & Canada. “Now within a community of thousands of B Corps, they stand out for the breadth and depth of their positive impact ... leading collective action groups, and helping businesses wake up to their responsibility in creating racial justice.”

Part of being a B Corp means verifying that the companies Ben & Jerry’s works with have similar standards. Greyston Bakery, the business that makes the brownies that go into its ice cream, also forgoes background checks as well as interviews, résumés and applications in order to create more hiring opportunities for people who experience barriers to employment. Anyone interested in a job at Greyston must visit the bakery in person to get their name put on a hiring list; when there’s an opening, Greyston calls the person whose name is next on the list and offers them the position “no questions asked.” 

After learning that most Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency, Rhino Foods — Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough supplier — created an income advance program, effectively an internal loan system, for its employees.

The ice cream brand calls this way of doing business “linked prosperity” — the idea that there should be a positive impact on everyone in its supply chain, from employees to suppliers to customers and anyone else affected by its production process.

“Ben & Jerry’s is a pretty equitable enactment of capitalism,” said Emily Barman, a professor of sociology specializing in philanthropy at Boston University, and the author of “Caring Capitalism.” “They have a reputation for treating their employees and consumers well. As far as capitalism goes, they’re doing a pretty good job.”

Dairy farm workers and activists march in 2017 to the main Ben & Jerry's production facility in Vermont to call for "Milk
Dairy farm workers and activists march in 2017 to the main Ben & Jerry's production facility in Vermont to call for "Milk With Dignity," a campaign to obtain fair wages and living conditions for migrant workers.

A Rocky Road

Despite these raves, Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t completely escaped controversy. 

The company’s Black Lives Matter statement last month reignited old criticisms about its operations in Israel, where Ben & Jerry’s has a factory and two scoop shops. A pro-Palestine group in Vermont called the ice cream brand hypocritical for making money from ice cream sold in disputed Israeli settlements. “We are keenly aware of how complex the local market can be,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson told HuffPost, clarifying that the manufacturing facility and two scoop shops are located outside the occupied territories.

Ben & Jerry’s has also seen criticism about the practices of some of its suppliers. In 2015, migrant workers from Vermont dairy farms protested outside Ben & Jerry’s flagship Burlington store as part of a state-wide campaign to raise dairy industry standards. They asked that the company require its own milk suppliers to provide workers with vacation time, expanded time off and other benefits, which would hopefully persuade other companies to do the same. Ben & Jerry’s didn’t agree to the workers’ demands until 2017. “It took years of convincing,” Marita Canedo, a grassroots organizer for the Milk With Dignity initiative, told Vermont Public Radio last month.

Ben & Jerry’s said work was going on behind closed doors during that time. “In the end, we became the first — and, we believe, still the only — dairy buyer to commit to Milk With Dignity. We’ve worked hard to make it a success and we are proud of the real changes it has led to,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson told HuffPost.

Other critics have noted an exception to Ben & Jerry’s livable wage program: It does not apply to employees at the company’s many scoop shop franchises, where hourly wages and benefits are subject to state laws and the decisions of individual owners.

Commenting on this, a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson said: “The vast majority of our franchisees are incredibly caring for their staff as they know the staff members are the front line and create the customer experience. The scoopers often work a shorter workday for only one or two days per week in comparison to our manufacturing team.”

A person walks past Ben & Jerry's during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City.
A person walks past Ben & Jerry's during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City.

‘Kind Of The Gold Standard’

The journey hasn’t always been smooth, Greenfield admits.

Ambitious policies adopted by Ben & Jerry’s were sometimes later abandoned ― such as when it had to scrap its salary compression policy (requiring that executive pay never be more than five times that of the lowest-paid worker) in order to find a CEO with more experience in running a business after Cohen stepped down. 

And despite the positive clauses in the Unilever contract, the company went through some growing pains after the acquisition, including layoffs and some initial resistance to the company’s brand of activism.

Through it all, Ben & Jerry’s leadership never expected the ice cream company to be the vanguard of social change. But thinking back to 1978, when he and Cohen started the business, Greenfield sees a company with a social justice mission that was ahead of its time. And 40 years on, many other companies are still trying to catch up — including Unilever, which began to take its own social responsibility more seriously after buying Ben & Jerry’s.

“If companies are trying to understand how not to be lambasted for just creating a statement and not following up, if they’re really trying to look for how far they could actually go ... I think [Ben & Jerry’s] is a good place to look,” said Creary.

Reed agreed: “They are kind of the gold standard in this area.” He added, “It’s a matter of getting up and being who you are every day, and when you live by your values, that’s just what you do.”

When Greenfield saw Ben & Jerry’s Black Lives Matter statement during the wave of protests that followed Floyd’s death, he felt that the essential spirit of the company was still alive.

“Ben set the company on a path that allowed it to ... feel comfortable speaking out about controversial issues,” Greenfield said. “We supported Black Lives Matter four years ago when no businesses would go near it.”

“There have been times in Ben & Jerry’s history, after Unilever purchased the company, when it wasn’t working, and I’m happy to say things are working well [now],” Greenfield said. “When I see the company come out with a statement on dismantling white supremacy, I’m just so proud.”

HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to thisnewworld@huffpost.com.

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