Ben & Jerry’s Isn’t Afraid to Speak Out — And Finds Sustainability in Business Through Purpose and Profit


June 23, 2020

First published by Christopher Marquis on BtheChange on June 12, 2020 - 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.

As a values-led business, Ben & Jerry’s incorporates its progressive beliefs in its everyday practices and partnerships. Since becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever in 2000 through a unique acquisition agreement, the ice cream maker has stayed true to its roots and solidified that commitment by becoming a Certified B Corporation in 2012.

With guidance from co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the company has grown its bottom line and its social impact over the last four decades, speaking out and acting on issues ranging from the environment to social justice to a sustainable food system — and more. Most recently, the company gained attention for its statements against White supremacy amid protests across the United States and around the world.

While some companies shy from such statements, Ben & Jerry’s sees them as vital to its work. In fact, when Matthew McCarthy, a 21-year veteran at Unilever, became Ben & Jerry’s CEO two years ago, he challenged the business to “double its social impact,” emphasizing its role in building marketplace performance and meeting Ben & Jerry’s triple-bottom-line focus on producing the world’s best ice cream, earning a fair profit, and creating social change.

To learn more about Ben & Jerry’s operations as a B Corp and how that shapes its relationship with customers, workers, suppliers, and other business stakeholders, 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 to focus on Social Mission development. Below are excerpts from our interview as part of my research for my upcoming book, Better Business: How the B Corp Movement Is Remaking Capitalism.

When and why did Ben & Jerry’s become a B Corp?

Michalak: The co-founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, always had this idea that business with social purpose was really the more sustainable model. But nobody had actually codified the standards for measurement and verification. And that’s what B Lab did. That’s a really good thing.

We wanted to be part of the B Corp movement, and we wanted to help to bring both viability, awareness, energy, and maybe even gravitas to the movement.

"We’ve always thought that movements are much stronger than individual effort, whether it’s a company or literally an individual."

Our internal research team did a little bit of research that found when consumers and people who support our business and brands understand what we’re about in terms of purpose and social responsibility, they are two and a half times more loyal to us. That’s because they understand that we stand for something and we’re authentic about it and we are truly leaning into that model.

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. 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.

What has Ben & Jerry's learned from the B Impact Assessment?

Michalak: The assessment helps to hold up a mirror to what our company actually is, and gives us a new awareness of our business.

It also encourages us to consider new concepts: Maybe what the B Impact Assessment is suggesting could be a better way, or maybe we should be a little bit more assertive. For instance, the BIA’s diversity and inclusion section inside the supply chain and human resources has shown us where we might be able to do more.

It actually is a wonderful tool that creates some transformation. There will be new iterations of the BIA that help companies improve their score and actually strengthen the assessment itself. What we realized was, “Wow, this assessment is really cool, and maybe we can use it as a way to relate to some of our suppliers and some of the supplying community.”

We brought it forward as an engagement tool with our suppliers and said, “We would really like to work with you to use it as a tool to see where we all are.” Because we really want to work with companies that can both share values and make progress.

I have always been impressed with Ben & Jerry’s advocacy and willingness to speak out and the recent statement Silence Is NOT An Option on White supremacy is an important example of that. Can you provide some background on Ben and Jerry’s activism work?

Michalak: The activism piece really stems from our co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and specifically Ben. Ben has always been a leader in using the company’s platform to speak on social and economic issues, and environmental issues as well. I think for years, we probably considered ourselves more of a social and economic justice company than necessarily an environmentally focused company. The way we look at that now is that we’re sharing one earth, so it’s everybody’s job is to be working on the environment.

And that came through when Ben & Jerry’s actually codified its mission statement back in 1988, and was one of the first companies that actually put a social purpose alongside the economic and product purposes. What we were trying to say is that companies have enormous resources. They’re using money to buy raw materials and employ people and bring goods to market. And there needs to be an aspect in the conduct of that business that needs to be more intentional in looking at social and economic deficiencies in society and how we can make decisions that generate real positive outcomes through the business. We see a lot of that through purpose-driven businesses and values-led businesses now, especially in the B Corp movement.

How has this advocacy affected your relationships with other stakeholders, such as suppliers and customers?

Michalak: When it comes to social justice over the years, we’ve tried to incorporate it in actual programs, such as our sourcing programs, like our dairy program. We provide premiums to dairy farmers who achieve levels of sustainable agriculture and also dignify livelihoods for their farm workers. So, we’re actually incorporating into our supply chain these values of social and economic justice, and actually environmental justice as well.

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, like the recent work on racial justice. For the most part, what we wanted to do as a company was live the values and then advocate for them. So, one example from the early days at Ben and Jerry’s, well before same sex benefits were being discussed, there were some LGBTQ couples who realized the married heterosexual couples were getting benefits that the LGBTQ couples weren’t getting. So, we were one of the first companies to offer LGBTQ couples the same benefits, same-sex benefits, as married heterosexual couples received.

Eventually, that became a social issue externally, and many companies would not want to weigh in on LGBTQ civil rights and marriage. But we thought, wait a minute, we’re living those values and we need to be brave enough to support those values externally. So, we had campaigns, and continue to advocate, to support LGBTQ rights.

Oftentimes, we’ll receive comments from people that say, “You know what, we don’t share those values and we’ll no longer be customers.” And we respect that some people will have a set of values that are meaningful and important to them, and we may lose some customers. But what we’ve also learned is that those who share those values are more deeply loyal. We did some internal research that suggested to us that those people are actually two and a half times more loyal than just regular customers.

But that wasn’t why we did those things. As Ben always said, “It’s kind of spiritual, almost biblical,” like the golden rule. And as you give you receive. The more you stick to good ideals and values that treat others as you want them to treat you, then you will also be treated well. While we have many people who disagree with us, others are deeply agree and are very loyal and we’ve seen a great success over the years by holding true to our values and publicly advocating for them.

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