Why Ben & Jerry’s Won’t Stay Silent On White Supremacy—Or Other Social Justice Issues

Racial unrest spurred many companies to speak up, on social media, in emails, and elsewhere over the past two weeks. For some brands, it was new territory. But for Ben & Jerry’s, speaking out about White supremacy and other social justice issues is essential to its business. In its “Silence is not an option” message, Ben & Jerry’s issues four policy-oriented calls to action, reflecting its decades of advocacy work, which they followed-up with 12 Ways You Can Help Eradicate White Supremacy.

Since its founding in 1978 as a scoop shop in Burlington, Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s has grown to become the top-ranked U.S. ice cream brand with products distributed in 38 countries around the globe. At the same time, founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield built on the company’s three-part mission—economic, social, product—that aims to create linked prosperity for everyone connected to the business. Through the years, Ben & Jerry’s has found that its work on progressive issues—including racial justice, environment, and refugees—leads to greater customer loyalty and a stronger bond with employees and business partners.

The company’s growth—in sales and in advocacy—continued even as Ben & Jerry’s was acquired in 2000 by Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company. While some worried the acquisition would affect the company’s grassroots work, Ben & Jerry’s has built on its purpose-driven model and further cemented that commitment in 2012 by becoming a Certified B Corporation, passing a rigorous assessment of its social and environmental performance verified by the independent nonprofit B Lab. When Matthew McCarthy, a 21-year veteran of Unilever, became Ben & Jerry’s CEO in the summer of 2018, he challenged the business to double its social impact, reinforcing the belief that the triple-bottom-line focus—profit, people, and planet—will continue to drive performance in the marketplace. 

To learn more about Ben & Jerry’s social impact work and how it affects its relationship with customers, workers, suppliers, and other business stakeholders as part of my research for Better Business, I talked with Rob Michalak, the Director of Social Mission Special Projects at Ben & Jerry’s. Michalak is a longtime member of the Ben & Jerry’s team, leading the public relations function for almost 10 years before leaving in 1998, and returning in 2006 when he could focus on the company’s Social Mission.

Cultivating Customer Loyalty

Ben & Jerry’s was among the first companies to prioritize social purpose alongside a focus on finances and product quality, Michalak says, launching the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation in 1985. The foundation now incorporates an employee-led grant program that distributed $2.7 million in 2018 to support grassroots organizing for social and environmental justice across the country.

“We quickly understood that philanthropy is a wonderful thing but that philanthropy is quite ephemeral in terms of, you sign a check and you provide a grant, and once it’s spent, it’s gone,” he says. “That’s when we started to examine how we could take those attributes of philanthropy and incorporate them right into the business structure. Now, we see a lot of that through purpose-driven businesses and values-led businesses now, especially in the B Corp movement, but this was really avant garde thinking back then.”

By sharing its values transparently—in actions and in cause-benefitting, message-sending ice cream products such as Justice ReMix’d and Pecan Resist—Ben & Jerry’s has seen some customers take their money elsewhere, but it also has developed a large and loyal following.  

“We respect that some people will have a set of values that are meaningful and important to them, and we may lose some customers,” Michalak says. “But what we’ve also learned is that those who share those values are more deeply loyal. We did some internal research that suggested that those people are actually two and a half times more loyal than just regular customers—that’s of great value. They understand that we stand for something and we’re authentic about it.”

Through the years, Ben & Jerry’s also has incorporated social justice into its business practices, including its dairy sourcing program. 

“We provide premiums to dairy farmers who achieve levels of sustainable agriculture and also dignified livelihoods for their farm workers,” Michalak says. “So, we’re actually incorporating into our supply chain these values of social and economic justice and environmental justice as well.”

A Sustainable, Profitable Model

As a B Corp and a part of Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s realizes its role in demonstrating that a values- and purpose-driven business owned by a multinational company also can be profitable.

“There is the ongoing debate about what a company should be, and purpose-driven companies really are the companies of the future; they’re profitable and more sustainable,” Michalak says. “More and more people are coming to this realization, but we still have boards of directors and shareholders who may not share that point of view. It’s important to think about how the B Corp community continues to build a value that not only consumers can see, but also that shareholders and management can see.”

When Ben & Jerry’s gained B Corp certification through established standards in the B Impact Assessment, it literally certified the business vision that Cohen and Greenfield had when they launched the company, Michalak says. 

“That’s a really good thing,” he says. “We wanted to be part of the B Corp movement, and we wanted to help to bring viability, awareness, and energy. We’ve always thought that movements are much stronger than individual effort.”

From the start of the process, Unilever supported Ben & Jerry’s in becoming the first wholly owned subsidiary to gain B Corp certification. That reflects its governance structure, Michalak says: Ben & Jerry’s has a board of directors with authority over the company’s social mission as well as the right to legally challenge Unilever on decisions that may divert Ben & Jerry’s from its mission.

Social and Economic Benefits

By living its values for more than 40 years and formalizing them through B Corp certification, Ben & Jerry’s has established strong ties with its workers, customers, and business partners, as well as their communities.

“As we started to establish this model and bring it forward, it attracted people to the company who shared those values,” he says. “They take pride in the fact that here was a company that not only was trying to make money, but trying to make money in a very reasonable, intentional way that created social benefits and hopefully economic benefits.”

And during times of crisis and unrest like the present, Ben & Jerry’s feels an even greater responsibility to lead through actions and words, Michalak says. 

“Companies have enormous resources,” he says. “As time has gone on, our campaigns and our activist voice has gotten into a little bit more of the complex social issues that we’re facing. But for the most part, what we wanted to do was to, as a company, live the values and then advocate for them.”

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