It wasn’t easy to become one of the world’s most beloved companies
Did you know that ice cream wasn’t what Ben and Jerry planned to sell when they first got their start? And that the chunks are there for a really interesting reason?
11 Things You Didn't Know About Ben & Jerry's
Did you know that ice cream wasn’t what Ben and Jerry planned to sell when they first got their start? And that the chunks are there for a really interesting reason?
Ice Cream Wasn’t Their First Choice
Being from New York, Cohen and Greenfield’s first impulse was to open a bagel shop. The necessary equipment was too expensive, however, so they settled on less-expensive ice cream instead.
They Learned to Make Ice Cream from a Correspondence Course
The duo got all the training they needed from a $5 correspondence course from Penn State.
They Settled on Burlington for a Logical Reason
In order to figure out where to open their ice cream shop, they had two criteria. One, it had to be a college town, and two, there had to be no pre-existing ice cream shop there. After doing some research they settled on Burlington, VT, which had no ice cream shop and was the home of University of Vermont. The only thing going against it? The winters were brutal. They took a risk, though, and it paid off.
The First Location was a Refurbished Gas Station
With a $12,000 investment ($4,000 of it borrowed), they opened their first shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington. The first winter was so brutal that once spring rolled around they celebrated their anniversary by giving everyone who visited a free scoop, a tradition that’s still in practice today.
The Chunks are There for an Interesting Reason
Cohen has what’s called anosmia, meaning that his sense of smell is nearly non-existent. This also seriously affected his sense of taste, so for him it was all about the texture. That super-creamy mouthfeel, and the addition of all those satisfying chunks? Those were indicators that told Ben that they were on the right track.
They Got into a Big Fight with Häagen-Dazs
During the company’s big expansion in the 1980s, competing Häagen-Dazs (owned by Pillsbury) wanted to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s in the Boston area. Not only did Ben & Jerry’s sue, they also launched a major national marketing campaign, asking “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”, resulting in great publicity for Ben & Jerry’s and a PR nightmare for Häagen-Dazs, who lost the case.
Their Brownies are Helping The Less Fortunate
Since 1982, the brownies used in their Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Half Baked flavors have come from Yonkers-based Greyston Bakery, a social enterprise that employs everyone who applies for a job, no questions asked. It’s helped hundreds of people who face barriers to unemployment get back on their feet, providing employment and training to 181 people in 2012 alone.
They’re Owned by Unilever
In 2000, the company was sold to the multinational food giant Unilever, who have taken more or less a hands-off approach. Greenfield and Cohen were able to retire and no longer are involved with the company in an official capacity, but they’re still familiar fixtures around the Burlington headquarters.
There’s a “Flavor Graveyard”
If you visit the factory in Vermont, be sure you visit the Flavor Graveyard, where dozens of flavors have been “laid to rest” over the years, complete with headstones and witty epitaphs.
They’re Not Without Controversy
Cohen and Greenfield have always been open about their left-leaning politics, which has gotten them in hot water with conservative groups from time to time. They’ve aligned themselves with a pro-reef campaign in Australia, and offended some folks when they released a “Black and Tan” flavor, included fortune cookie pieces in its “Taste the Lin-Sanity” flavor, and released a “Schweddy Balls” flavor, a play on Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live character that offended some family values groups.
They’re Extremely Socially and Environmentally Conscious
Ben & Jerry’s may have a great sense of humor, but they take their product extremely seriously. Aside from Greyston, they support mandatory GMO labeling, they responsibly source their ingredients and follow fair trade practices, use green production and packaging, and all in all are one of the most responsible companies on the planet.
12 Things You Never Knew About Ben & Jerry’s
I’m sure we all remember those long, hot summers when we were kids and all we wanted to do was get an ice cream cone and try to eat it before it all came melting down our hands. Thanks to Ben & Jerry’s fun flavors and Free Cone Days, our ice cream adventures were even sweeter. Check out these facts that’ll make you scream for some ice cream.
1. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were childhood friends
Photo courtesy of onelifesuccess.net
Ben and Jerry were born just four days apart in 1951 in Brooklyn, New York. They became best friends in the 7th grade and grew up together loving ice cream.
2. Ben dropped out of college to teach pottery
Photo courtesy of alchetron.com
After attending a few different colleges, Ben Cohen dropped out to teach pottery on a farm. This is also when he started forming an interest in ice cream making.
3. Jerry wanted to go to medical school
Photo courtesy of denverpost.com
Jerry attended Oberlin College and worked as a lab technician after graduating. He wanted to go to medical school but did not have any luck getting accepted.
4. Ben and Jerry almost started a bagel business
Photo courtesy of pinterest.com
That’s right, it was almost Ben & Jerry’s Bagels. After college, Ben and Jerry decided they wanted to start a food business together and their first choice was bagels. However they soon discovered that would be too expensive for them and they settled on ice cream.
5. They took a $5 ice cream course
Photo courtesy of boston.com
Together they took a $5 ice cream making course at Penn State in the 1970s.
6. They bought an old gas station for their first store
Photo courtesy of pinterest.com
They bought an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont, and converted it into their first ice cream store. The store opened in 1978.
7. The first Free Cone Day was in 1979
Photo courtesy of benjerry.com
In 1979, Ben & Jerry’s held the first Free Cone Day to celebrate their store’s one year anniversary.
8. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was used for the largest sundae
Photo courtesy of pinterest.com
In 1983, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was used to create the world’s largest ice cream sundae in St. Albans, Vermont. The sundae weighed 27,102 pounds.
9. Ronald Reagan loved Ben & Jerry’s too
Photo courtesy of unilever.com
President Ronald Reagan deemed Ben and Jerry the U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year in 1988. By the end of the year, they had stores in 18 states.
10. Ben and Jerry made a movie
Photo courtesy of wnyc.org
They made a documentary, Citizen Cool, about people who make an impact in their communities. They even made a new ice cream flavor to accompany the new release, Concession Obsession.
11. There’s a graveyard for ice cream flavors no longer used
Photo courtesy of benjerry.com
There’s a graveyard outside of the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Vermont that has a headstone for every retired or failed ice cream flavor. That’s a graveyard I wouldn’t mind having nightmares about. Find out which retired flavor you are by taking this quiz.
12. Ben and Jerry were arrested in 2016
Photo courtesy of benjerry.com
In April 2016, Ben and Jerry were arrested for during the Democracy Awakening’s protest near the US Capitol Building. Check out their story here.
9 Things You Didn’t Know About Ben & Jerry’s
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1. Ben supports the idea of a weed-infused flavor (where it is legal.)
In an interview with HuffPost Live, Ben admitted that cannabis-infused ice cream makes sense to him. “Combine your pleasures,” he said.
2. They lobbied for same-sex marriage in Vermont.
Photo courtesy of benjerry.com
They even changed the name of their flavor “Chubby Hubby” to “Hubby Hubby” for a day.
3. They made a 90-pound baked Alaska dessert to protest oil drilling in the Alaska.
Photo courtesy of National Geographic
Under the mantra “Don’t bake Alaska,” Ben & Jerry’s served the dessert on the U.S. Capitol lawn back in 2005 after the House of Representatives passed a bill that allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
4. They filed a lawsuit against Haagen-Dazs after they tried to limit distribution of Ben & Jerry’s products.
Photo courtesy of brandsforbreakfast.com
The lawsuit was filed against Pillsbury, the parent company of Haagen-Dazs, in 1984, spawning the famous “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign.
5. If you’re famous enough, they might turn your name into a pun and create a flavor for you.
Photo courtesy of benjerry.com
The list of celebrities with their own flavors include: Willie Nelson, Elton John, Ron Burgandy, Dave Matthews Band, the cast of Monty Python, Jimmy Fallon, Phish, a character Alec Baldwin plays on SNL, Stephen Colbert, President Obama, Jerry Garcia, Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter, John Lennon and Napoleon Dynamite
6. They have a graveyard for flavors that have been discontinued.
It’s called the Flavor Graveyard, and it is full of tombstones for the “dearly de-pinted.”
7. They care about the environment.
Photo courtesy of businesswire.com
On April 1, Ben & Jerry’s kicked off their “Save Our Swirled” tour. The tour intends to raise awareness for the effects of carbon pollution and solutions for clean energy.
8. They have a machine in the Netherlands that turns ice cream bi-products into energy.
Photo courtesy of benjerry.com
The machine, called the Chunkinator, contains billions of microorganisms that transform the waste into biogas, which then powers the factory.
Ok. The ice cream didn&rsquot fly. But the hot air balloon did. It was 10 stories tall, roughly the size of 11.7 million scoops of Cherry Garcia in a waffle cone.
There you have it! Ten things you may not have known, that you now know and will never forget. Have your own fun Ben & Jerry's stories? Share them with us in the comments below!
11 Sweet Things To Know About Ben & Jerry's
Over the years Ben and Jerry's ice cream has fueled countless birthday parties, sleepovers, picnics, and virtually all summer activities. But the iconic brand behind punny pints like Cherry Garcia and Karamel Sutra has more to dish out than scoops. Here’s what you should know about Ben, Jerry, and scoop shops worldwide.
Sweet Father's Day Messages for the Father of Your Children
Let him know just how much you admire him as a dad.
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5 Things You Should Always Look for When Vintage Shopping
While, yes, shopping at your favorite haunts like Ikea and Anthropologie can be comforting, you haven’t lived until you’ve scoured through a vintage store or flea market, only to find a one-of-a-kind statement piece you’d never have the luck to pick up elsewhere. Plus, buying mismatched chairs creates a fun look.
15 Things You Might Not Know About Ben & Jerry's
You know which flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream is your favorite, and whether you prefer to eat it from a bowl or straight out of the pint. But there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the company that turned Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey into household names. Here are 15 things you might not know about Ben & Jerry’s.
1. THE COMPANY WAS LAUNCHED WITH A $5 CORRESPONDENCE COURSE.
Considering the popularity of Ben & Jerry’s products worldwide, it’s hard to believe that co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started the business by spending a mere $5 on a correspondence course in ice cream-making from Penn State. From there, they pooled $8000—and borrowed another $4000—to open their first ice cream shop, in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont.
2. CO-FOUNDER BEN COHEN HAS NO SENSE OF SMELL.Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Ben & Jerry's
Cohen—the "Ben" in Ben & Jerry’s—suffers from anosmia, meaning that he has almost no sense of smell. It’s for that very reason that Ben & Jerry’s flavors are so rich. If he couldn’t taste a recipe, he’d just add more flavoring.
3. EMPLOYEES GET A PINT ALLOTMENT.
Working at Ben & Jerry’s corporate headquarters in South Burlington, Vermont has its perks—like a take-home allowance of three pints of ice cream per day! Fortunately, the office also has a fully equipped gym. They also have a yoga instructor and an occasional massage therapist. (No wonder they also need a nap room.)
4. MOST FLAVORS START WITH THE SAME BASE.Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Ben & Jerry's
The base for most of Ben & Jerry's flavors is the same: a mix of milk, cream, liquid sugar, egg yolks, and water. But there are a couple of variations that have different fat and sugar levels. Choosing which to start with depends on what’s going to be added in. If a recipe calls for something high fat, like peanut butter, it starts with a lower fat base. "If you’re at too high a fat level, once you freeze it, you’re going to end up with concrete it’s not going to come out of the machine," former Flavor Guru Kirsten Schimoler told Mental Floss. "If they’re adding something sweet, like caramel, they use one with lower sugar."
5. IT CAN TAKE MORE THAN A YEAR TO DEVELOP A NEW FLAVOR.
While it might seem like new flavors of Ben & Jerry’s are popping up in the freezer of your local grocery store all the time, each new flavor goes through a rigorous process before being launched to the public. According to one of the company’s Flavor Gurus, the average development cycle of a new pint is about 12 to 14 months.
6. SCHWEDDY BALLS, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS DEVELOPED IN RECORD TIME.
While, in general, it can take a year or more for a new Ben & Jerry's flavor to go from concept to grocery store freezers, Schweddy Balls—a flavor inspired by Alec Baldwin's classic Saturday Night Live holiday skit—made it to market in a record four months when it was released for the 2011 holiday season. Unfortunately, the flavor—vanilla ice cream with a bit of rum and fudge-covered rum and malt balls—has since been retired.
7. YOU CAN PAY TRIBUTE TO YOUR FAVORITE DEARLY DEPARTED FLAVORS AT BEN & JERRY’S FLAVOR GRAVEYARD.Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
Speaking of discontinued flavors: True devotees of the beloved B&J brand can pay a visit to the company’s Flavor Graveyard at their factory in Waterbury, Vermont. Yes, it’s an actual graveyard where dozens of now-discontinued flavors, which they refer to as the "dearly depinted," have their very own headstones with clever epitaphs. Sugar Plum’s, for example, states that: "It swirled in our heads, it danced in our dreams, it proved not to be though, the best of ice creams."
8. THE FLAVOR GRAVEYARD HAS A COUPLE OF ZOMBIES.
Just because a flavor is dead and buried in the Flavor Graveyard doesn't mean it can’t come back to life. After a decade of strong sales, Ben & Jerry’s reluctantly had to retire White Russian in 1996, but not because it wasn't popular. The cost of the Kahlua-like flavoring that was used in its production became too prohibitive. But the customers spoke and White Russian was eventually resurrected, but only in Scoop Shops (sorry grocery store customers).
9. SOMETIMES THE NAME DICTATES THE FLAVOR.Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
It doesn't happen often, but on a few occasions, the company has come up with a new flavor name before developing the flavor itself. This is what happened with Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt, based on Tina Fey's 30 Rock character. "They knew they wanted to do a Liz Lemon flavor but didn't know what they wanted it to be," Schimoler said. "We looked at so many different lemon flavors."
10. EACH YEAR, THE FLAVOR GURUS MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO A FORWARD-THINKING FOOD CITY.
In order to stay ahead of the flavor curve, they’ll spend 12 hours a day tasting offerings from food venues of all types, hitting as many as 10 spots a day. The inspiration for the aforementioned Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt? A blueberry-lavender cocktail in San Francisco.
11. CUSTOMERS PLAY A VITAL ROLE IN DECIDING NEW FLAVORS.Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc.
Each year, the company receives about 13,000 suggestions for new flavors from beloved pint-devourers the world over. The team reviews each and every submission for consideration and to look for recurring themes or flavor suggestions, which can be invaluable in developing new crave-worthy pints. Some of the company's most iconic flavors were born from customer feedback, including Cherry Garcia, which was suggested by two Deadheads from Portland, Maine. The flavor spent more than a decade at the top of the list of favorite flavors.
12. NOT EVERY FLAVOR CAN BE FOUND IN YOUR LOCAL GROCERY STORE.
Not every flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream comes in a pint or is available at your local grocery store. The company regularly creates flavors exclusively for a single retailer or specific to one geographic location (Canada, for example, has If I Had 1,000,000 Flavours, a multiflavored ice cream that the company created in collaboration with Barenaked Ladies). The Scoop Shops carry exclusive flavors, too—like Maccha Made in Heaven (Maccha green tea ice cream with caramelized pecans), which is popular in Tokyo.
13. THERE'S ONE INGREDIENT THAT WILL NEVER MAKE IT INTO A PINT.
Though bacon is among among one of the most requested items that customers have for the Ben & Jerry's team, it won’t be making its way into a pint near you. The reason? Ben & Jerry's plants are kosher.
14. KALE ICE CREAM WON'T BE HAPPENING EITHER.
The company has a long list of regular vendors for things like chocolate and caramel, but there's an even longer list of snack peddlers hoping to sell their ingredients in a pint of ice cream, including one very persistent proponent of kale chips. Though the R&D team did attempt to implement the healthful ingredient into a batch of ice cream, the flavor gurus don't imagine that it would be a hot seller, noting that, "No one wants to sit down with a pint of Kale Ben & Jerry's."
15. BEN & JERRY'S ALSO COMES IN BEER FORM.New Belgium Brewing
For ice cream lovers who prefer to guzzle the sweet stuff, Ben & Jerry's has regularly collaborated with Colorado's New Belgium Brewing to create beers that replicate the ice cream’s delicious flavors. The partnership kicked off in 2015 with a Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale, and last fall they came up with a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ale.
Halo Top Ice Cream Just Outsold Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs
Halo Top, the low-calorie ice cream sensation, officially outsold the biggest ice cream brands on the market: Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. One or the other of the two classic creamy contenders has held the number one spot on sales lists for years — and never even blinked an eye at new frosty, sweet competitors.
Until ice cream became diet-friendly and delicious, and the world turned upside down.
High-protein ice cream is in. Indulgent dessert is out. For just 240-360 calories per pint, consumers can gorge themselves on sweet cream and sugary scoops without experiencing any of the sickening consequences of downing a pint of normal ice cream.
And they went crazy for it. As soon as Halo Top was discovered in freezer aisles, sales exploded. “The brand saw a 2,500 percent increase in sales last year and is on track for another record-breaking year,” Halo Top reported in their press release.
The product doesn’t, of course, taste the same as the real stuff. It’s not as rich, it’s not as thick, and many report an off-kilter texture and flavor they couldn’t get past. “It's like ice milk, except even denser and more flaky,” said one reviewer at Walmart.
But the nay-sayers are the drowned-out exception. The adoration for Halo Top ice cream is overwhelming, saturating Internet conversation and freezer aisles nationwide.
“I'm impressed with this ice cream, it doesn't taste diet at all!” said another.
One college student was even inspired to eat nothing but the pints for an entire week.
The crazed fans don’t go unnoticed. “The reason we’ve taken the number one spot is simple: We have amazing fans,” said CEO and founder Justin Woolverton. “We are eternally grateful to them for even allowing us to exist, let alone thrive.”
And thrive they will. We hear their cream-crafting wizards have some exciting things in the works — so we’ll be listening carefully for future news. In the meantime, we’ll just be over here gorging ourselves on scoop after divine scoop.
Ben & Jerry's Founders Are Totally Down With Weed Ice Cream When It's Legal
Ben & Jerry's reputation as a quirky ice cream company is no secret, and every one of their flavors is far from normal. In a HuffPost Live interview Wednesday, founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield hinted that they'd be open to a higher level of experimentation in the future — specifically, they would consider making a cannabis-infused ice cream should legal hurdles be removed.
"Makes sense to me," Cohen told host Alyona Minkovski matter-of-factly. "Combine your pleasures."
Greenfield seemed a little more hesitant, but he didn't rule it out.
"Ben and I have had previous experiences with substances, and I think legalizing marijuana is a wonderful thing," he said. "It's not my decision. If it were my decision, I'd be doing it, but fortunately we have wiser heads at the company that figure those things out."
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10 Delicious Facts about Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard
When the shiny, happy ice cream makers at Ben & Jerry’s decide to discontinue your favorite flavor, there are two things you can do: whine about it, or pay tribute to your preferred pint at the company’s Flavor Graveyard.
What began as an online-only ode to the Waterbury, Vermont-based company’s dearly departed pints (a.k.a. “the depinted”) in 1995 has become a real, live tourist attraction. Set peacefully on a hill behind the Ben & Jerry’s Factory, a visit to the Flavor Graveyard can be done independently of a factory tour (though the daily 30-minute tours do conclude with a tasting). We recently had the chance to pay our respects to the brand’s retired slate of pints, and learned 10 fun facts along the way.
1. THE FLAVOR GRAVEYARD OPENED IN 1997
Two years after the Flavor Graveyard made its digital debut, the sweet-toothed cemetery opened to the public. Its first official residents came during a mass burial of four flavors: Dastardly Mash (1979-1991), Economic Crunch (1987-1987), Ethan Almond (1988-1988), and Tuskegee Chunk (1989-1990). Today, it’s estimated that as many as 300,000 people visit the Flavor Graveyard each year.
2. 31 FLAVORS ARE CURRENTLY “BURIED” HERE
Don’t bother trying to dig up what might be the last known pint of your favorite flavor, as there’s nothing actually buried at the site itself—unless, according to a company spokesperson, you count “warm memories and cold reality.” Turtle Soup, Crème Brulee, and Fossil Fuel are its most recently interred flavors.
3. ETHAN ALMOND IS THE YOUNGEST RESIDENT
When it comes to short-lived flavors, Ethan Almond has its fellow residents beat. The flavor—vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered almonds—was never even sold as a pint. It was a bulk flavor, created specifically for the opening of Burlington, Vermont’s Ethan Allen Homestead Museum in 1987.
4. PEANUTS! POPCORN! AND CHOCOLATE COMFORT DIDN’T LAST LONG EITHER
Though both of these flavors did make it to grocery store shelves—Chocolate Comfort in 1999 and Peanuts! Popcorn! in 2000—both were laid to rest less than a year after their release.
5. THE HEADSTONES ARE MADE OF RESIN, FOR NOW
Though all of the graveyard’s headstones were initially made of resin, granite is taking over as the company’s material of choice. And they’re slowly replacing all of the original headstones at a rate of “a few” per year, according to a company spokesperson.
6. EACH FLAVOR GETS A CLEVER LITTLE EPITAPH
It’s the job of one of Ben & Jerry’s in-house copywriters to pay tribute to the growing list of retired flavors with a few poetic lines on the flavor’s passing. Sugar Plum, for example: "It swirled in our heads, it danced in our dreams, it proved not to be though, the best of ice creams."
7. WAVY GRAVY AND RAINFOREST CRUNCH ARE SORELY MISSED
Though they’ve recently revamped their website, ice cream lovers jonesing for a particular retired flavor were previously able to make their voices heard by casting a vote for the pints they most wanted to see resurrected. Two of the biggest vote-getters? Wavy Gravy and Rainforest Crunch.
8. WHITE RUSSIAN IS A ZOMBIE
After a decade of strong sales, Ben & Jerry’s reluctantly had to retire White Russian in 1996, but not because it wasn’t popular. The cost of the Kahlua-like flavoring that was used in its production became too prohibitive. But the customers spoke and White Russian was eventually resurrected, but only in Scoop Shops (sorry grocery store customers).
9. HOLY CANNOLI FOUND AN AFTERLIFE, TOO
Though Holy Cannoli spent only a year on shelves, the public outcry following its retirement was loud enough that the company’s flavor-makers decided to revisit the idea, but tweak its recipe. In 2012, they released a new take on the flavor—simply called Cannoli—as a limited batch, noting on their Facebook page, “We made a cannoli flavor with ricotta before and it bombed. It was called Holy Cannoli. This is a new take on it and we think it tastes better than Holy Cannoli did. We hope you do too!” (Maybe it was the pistachios.)
10. ECONOMIC CRUNCH LIVED UP TO ITS NAME
The day after the stock market crash of November 6, 1987, Ben & Jerry’s sent a truck to Wall Street and began handing out free scoops of Economic Crunch ice cream to brokers and investment bankers. The truck was parked illegally, which didn’t please the NYPD. But the company was determined to finish the job: Each time the driver was asked to move, he’d drive around the block, park in the same space again, and continue scooping.
How Ben & Jerry’s Got Bought Out Without Selling Out
When people hear the name “Ben and Jerry’s,” they think of three things: First, the high-quality ice cream, heavy on the mix-ins and the butterfat second, the pun-riddled names of flavors such as Cherry Garcia, Karamel Sutra or Americone Dream and third, the company’s longstanding social, environmental and corporate justice missions.
But when co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield agreed to sell the business in 2000 to Unilever, a multinational food giant, plenty of people expected that those missions wouldn’t survive. To a remarkable degree, they were mistaken.
In a recent interview with Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, current Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim talked about how the ice cream company has managed to hold onto its original social missions, despite its absorption by Unilever.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Katherine Klein: We’re here to talk about the social mission of the company and how you have maintained it even as Ben & Jerry’s has become part of Unilever.
Jostein Solheim: Ben & Jerry’s is now 36 years old as a mission-led company. I think the key thing in the whole transition to one shareholder from multiple shareholders was a governance structure that was put in place. Unilever was very visionary in recognizing that it says “Ben & Jerry” on the packaging. If Ben and Jerry go out and say, “Well, this is all not really true anymore and [social justice is] not a mission of the company anymore,” that would really undermine the value of the acquisition.
Klein: So Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, and this was a company where the social mission was baked into the brand.
Solheim: That is integral to how we do business.
Klein: And Unilever saw this and its investors saw this from the beginning, and saw value?
Solheim: Yes. That’s why they and the then-sitting board together agreed to set up an independent board of directors that acts basically like our benefit corporation director. They are responsible for the social mission, for the integrity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand, our policies. They even get involved in basic things like wage-setting in the factories, where we have a livable wage policy that is overseen by the board of directors. And the directors are self-selecting. Unilever appoints just two seats out of 11 board members.
Klein: Fascinating. And so unusual.
Klein: You had a career in ice cream at Unilever before coming on five years ago as CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. How was the transition from the larger entity of Unilever to this interestingly different mission-driven company?
“It’s very hard to be angry and eat ice cream at the same time. It’s very tempting to stop and sign a petition, if there’s free ice cream.”
Solheim: I don’t know whether that transition was tougher for them or for me. But Unilever as a company is very aligned in its values. It actually has a lot of diversity in it in terms of management styles, personalities. It has a history of quite a lot of autonomy in its senior leaders, so it wasn’t a super stark contrast. You know, I worked in Italy, I worked in Sweden — the culture of Ben & Jerry’s is actually similar to typical Scandinavian companies. It’s a flat, un-hierarchical sort of approach to business. The biggest thing for me was I felt a big sense of responsibility.
Klein: Have Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield stayed involved?
Solheim: Yeah, they are involved, but they do more of their own things. They have the best jobs in the world. Their job is to be Ben and to be Jerry, and they basically just have to deliver on that. Day-to-day operations are really in the hands of the management team and the board of directors.
Klein: Ben & Jerry’s describes itself as a values-driven company. You celebrate your social, environmental governance values on the website. Can you tell us how that plays out in action? How do you move from words to deeds?
[email protected] High School
Solheim: Well, I think that’s the key point. A lot of companies would say they’re consumer-led, whether that’s in product development or in a mission. Similarly, when companies come to the world of corporate social responsibility, they ask themselves, ‘What do people really care about? And how can we be a part of that?’ At Ben & Jerry’s, we come at it the other way. We actually ask ourselves, ‘What do we truly believe in — us?’ And then we execute well, because we truly believe in it, and hence, convince others to join us. So that’s what we mean by that: It starts with our values, and then we apply and join in movements with other partners to make change.
Klein: So talk to us about some of those specific values and how they are enacted through your products, through your employment practices and partnerships.
Solheim: We can take one we just won. Let’s take same-sex marriage. That came on the agenda in the 1980s at Ben & Jerry’s. Ben & Jerry’s was one of the first companies to offer same-sex partners the same rights — health care, etc.
When that started to come into the public domain and become a debate, it was very clear for the company — we couldn’t just say, “You’re OK if you’re at Ben & Jerry’s, but if you’re not, you’re not.” So it was very natural for the employees to join in and campaign for same-sex marriage. Then, as we grew bigger, we scaled that campaign up. And now, we finished in the U.S. with the Supreme Court decision this year.
We also won in Ireland. We put it on the map in Australia, in France — in multiple countries where this comes up. It’s something that we believe in. We don’t do an assessment if this position is popular or unpopular. When we started a same-sex marriage campaign in Australia, not a single political party there supported same-sex marriage. Everybody came to us, saying “What are you doing? You shouldn’t do this.” Well, sorry, this is something we really believe in.
Klein: You’ve had individual employees involved in these campaigns. But Ben & Jerry’s as a company, is it active as a major donor, or leading campaigns?
Solheim: The amazing thing is that selling ice cream and running campaigns [use] the same set of skills. You want to get people’s attention, you need social media, you need events. And one great thing that we have, of course, is ice cream. It’s very hard to be angry and eat ice cream at the same time. It’s very tempting to stop and sign a petition, if there’s free ice cream. So ice cream plays a really important role in how we connect with our fans.
We treat those campaigns in exactly the same way as we would treat a new product launch.
Klein: And sometimes they actually appear on your products, right?
Solheim: “I Dough, I Dough” was our celebration of the same-sex marriage act.
We just launched a product, “Save Our Swirled,” which is in support of a binding climate agreement in Paris, where the U.N. [held talks]. We launched that with Tesla out on the West Coast. And then, we launched a European version in Bonn … inside the climate negotiations at the U.N. So we had the opportunity to feed all those people who are trying to work this out for us.
“We have a livable wage policy that is overseen by the board of directors.”
Klein: You actually use ice cream as a metaphor for global warming, right?
Solheim: Correct. We show what ice cream looks like if it’s just two degrees warmer. It’s a bit of a mess.
Klein: It’s a fabulous metaphor: This is what happens to your ice cream after two degrees [and] what happens to the world if it’s warmer by two degrees.
Are there instances where you as a CEO, or as a company, have said, “Yeah, we care about that issue, but we can’t go there. That’s too hot, that’s too controversial”?
Solheim: There are many issues where we’ve had to say we can’t go there, not necessarily because they’re too hot or too controversial, more because we don’t judge that we have a real ability to make an impact, or that we are prepared. You know, we believe you’ve got to walk the walk — not just talk. So we want to align our internal programs with the external campaigning.
There are issues that come up that are important — legitimate issues — but we haven’t built an internal program. So we’ll start that, and then join in. But controversy is not something that scares us. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t. We were the only corporation to support Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, which was a surprise to them, as well. And you know, nothing bad really happened to our business as a result of that.
Klein: We’d like to hope in the social impact space that companies can actually achieve a positive financial return and a social return on investment, and on social impact strategies. What’s your sense of how this pays off or doesn’t pay off for Ben & Jerry’s? I mean, it sounds terribly crass, but is there money to be made through corporate social responsibility in this kind of values-driven company?
Solheim: There is. There is because people want to make a difference with … actions and activities that they can do. What you buy and how you buy it is a big part of your everyday life, and increasingly, consumers are saying, “I don’t want to waste my money on products that don’t try to make a difference.”
Now there’s a lot of “greenwashing” out there, so people are rightly skeptical and demand real evidence, and [validation from] some other authorities, so they’re not just relying on what a company says. But it’s the fastest-growing area of fast-moving consumer goods by far: Socially responsible companies are making up 60% of the growth in fast-moving consumer goods in developed markets. If you look at a Nielsen study that just came out, which was across 14 countries, what you’re seeing is the rate of change is really picking up. In 2013, 50% of respondents said that they would pay more for a socially responsible product. Today, that’s already at 66% and accelerating. And obviously, a big driver of that is our wonderful millennials.
Klein: Do you see this as something that any company can do? Ben & Jerry’s could be criticized on some level for the healthiness of its ice cream. I’m thinking of other products that we may look at and say, “That’s not a healthy product, that’s not a product that’s good for the environment.” And yet, can any company find ways to live this mission?
Solheim: Absolutely. Not every company will become an activist company or a campaigning company like Ben & Jerry’s. I wouldn’t think that’s appropriate for every company. But every company can make those decisions that optimize their social impact and their business impact in any industry, anywhere, that benefits their employees, their communities, the environment — whichever constituents that they address. I don’t think that this is something unique to specific companies.
On the healthy vs. non-healthy products, in good products and bad products — for us, it’s all about transparency. I always say when you’re tucking into a Ben & Jerry’s and you’re on a diet, you know there are no hidden calories here — they’re right there for you to enjoy. And the world needs all sorts of different things to function. But I think transparency is critical. People should understand what they’re trying to get into, and we shouldn’t try to fool people. We shouldn’t have hidden sugars or hidden fats.
“We were the only corporation to support Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, which was a surprise to them, as well.”
It’s got to be transparent and open. It goes the same for all other industries. So again, I think it’s hard to say, “Oh, I’m in this business and this product, hence, I can’t have a social impact strategy.”
Klein: As you think about the social impact that Ben & Jerry’s has had and the places where you’ve tried to make a difference — I’m particularly interested in your own operations, whether this is your supply chain, your HR practices — can you talk to us about something that you’re particularly proud of — perhaps something relatively recent — and then, areas where you say, “We haven’t cracked this nut, we still have work to do in this area”?
Solheim: We did an assessment around what are the really big and important issues [to us] and … [after] a lot of internal discussion, it was very clear to us that there were two big topics that we needed to address over the next to five to 10 years and that’s climate and climate justice and inequality.
Racial and income … inequities that we’re seeing are creating such a tension in society, it’s hard even to operate businesses. … So we’ve embraced these two topics and what I’m the most proud of is just to see how our teams, our partners, embrace it and scale and throw themselves into making a difference. That’s probably what makes me the most proud.
What we haven’t cracked is, how do you reduce your carbon footprint by 80%? There’s a lot noise out there [about] a way [of doing business] that will be carbon neutral — well, the carbon footprint of a business goes end to end. It starts on a farm and finishes with the waste product. And you need to take responsibility for the whole thing — we need to reduce that by 80%. Fifty percent of our carbon footprint is in ingredients.
Klein: On the inequity/inequality front, maybe two questions. What is the connection you’re seeing between business success and inequality? What is that negative relationship you are seeing? And how might you take action in this space?
Solheim: That’s typically the first question you get when you’re getting involved in structural racism and some of these other deep-rooted social issues — and what’s in it for a business. If you actually look at the correlation of success, of economic success and inequality, it is highly correlated. We have an inherent value and belief that a society where everybody is treated justly and equally is just a better community to be in. It maps out very nicely, as well, in terms of economic opportunity and success.
It comes from our human values it comes from the values we have in our company. But we also see those communities thriving and doing better and being better for our business. Climate justice is about climate change, but it’s also about the fact that poor people, disadvantaged people, get hurt first. The wealthy can move, they can shift around the poor cannot. That has an equity component in it. But as we’re moving into the next phase, for us, we have to recognize that we’re a terribly white company. You know, we come from Vermont, and Vermont is 96% white.
We’ve had to do a lot of work in our company to really, really understand it. And we’ve partnered with a whole host of different, amazing partners, we’ve had a lot of NGOs and activists that have taken their time and invested in us to get a better understanding of this.
I think 2016 will be exciting. It’s an election year, it’s a great opportunity to rearrange the lighting [and] get a disproportionate impact on certain key issues like voter rights and minority participation in our democracy.