Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream discussed business, politics and the social responsibility of corporations to improve their community in a speech presented by the Fredericksburg Forum.
On Saturday, Nov. 10, Cohen and Greenfield spoke before a crowded Dodd Auditorium and gave an overview of how they formed their company was formed, the trouble they faced along the way and how they are continually trying to use their business success to improve society.
Ben and Jerry’s was sold to Unilever in 2000.
“They have a very good sense of humor,” said Cohen. “On the same day they bought Ben and Jerry’s they also bought Slimfast.”
Cohen and Greenfield eventually opened a business in Burlington, Vt., where there were no other ice cream parlors. They secured a bank loan and renovated an old gas station, opening their doors in 1978.
“Everything was fabulous. On a good day we could make 10 batches of ice cream,” said Cohen.
However, when the weather turned cold, people stopped buying ice cream. The store survived the winter by selling ice cream to local restaurants and then business picked up again once the weather became warmer.
Greenfield became the company salesperson, driving through Vermont and selling ice cream to restaurants. He eventually got the idea to sell their product to the grocery stores he drove by.
The company began to grow, picking up distributors in Boston and Ct., and ran into trouble when Haagen-Dazs, owned by Pillsbury, tried to shut them out.
“So we thought, okay, we’ll sue Pillsbury; that’ll be fun,” said Cohen.
Though Pillsbury’s actions were illegal, Ben and Jerry’s could not get the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The two decided to start a grassroots campaign to bring awareness to their problem. They posted a (1-800) number on their ice cream containers that customers could call to get information and request a “doughboy mailing kit,” which contained additional material, according to Cohen.
“We started getting all these phone calls [from customers],” said Cohen. “Mostly between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.”
The campaign brought media attention to the situation and Pillsbury backed off, allowing Ben and Jerry’s to be distributed, but they began to feel uncomfortable with their growing success.
“We felt our business was becoming a cog in the economic machine,” said Cohen.
They decided to forgo the traditional route of allowing venture capitalists to buy their company and opened it up for the people of Vermont to become stockholders instead.
“If we’re gonna grow our business, we’re going to do it in a way that’s consistent with our values,” said Cohen.
Ben and Jerry decided to redefine what business meant.
“We said that business is a combination of organized human energy plus money, which equals power,” said Greenfield. “Business has become the most powerful force in our society.”
According to Greenfield, business is fulfilling a role that used to be filled by religion and government.
“At least religion and government had in their purpose to improve the quality of life for society and its people, but business has never had that in its brief,” Greenfield said.
Greenfield said that CEOs of big businesses were good people with strong moral values who supported their communities, though they did so outside of their businesses. Greenfield felt that spiritual and social concerns were not excluded from the responsibility of businesses and decided to change the way his company measured success. Profits, while important to Greenfield, were only one aspect of what made a company successful. How Ben and Jerry’s made an impact on the community was also important.
Ben and Jerry’s found a way to help society and run a profitable business at the same time. For their coffee flavor, the company bought coffee from co-op farmers in developing countries, and for their blueberry flavor, they found a Native American tribe in Maine and bought blueberries from them. The two also found a bakery in N.Y. run by a religious institution whose purpose is to give jobs to the unemployable and bought additional ingredients from them.
“There came a point when the media began to criticize Ben and Jerry’s for cynically doing good deeds,” Greenfield said.
Greenfield also discussed the past election and how business has too much influence in politics.
“The root cause of the problem can always be traced back to the wealthy and corporations influencing politicians with enormous sums of money,” Greenfield said.
Disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which gave business more power to influence elections, Ben and Jerry’s started a campaign to “stamp money out of politics” by placing a stamp on dollar bills, using slogans such as “not to be used for bribing politicians” and “corporations are not people; money is not free speech,” according to Greenfield.
Shayda Rezazad, a senior business major and student director of CORE, said, “As a business student, I feel it was informative and entertaining.