Jeff Furman, chief of the Board of Directors for the company, recently paid a visit to U of M. While here, Furman discussed the extent of the company’s dedication to world issues beyond the glorious combination of ice cream and gooey, caramel cores; the company actively advocates for marriage equality, poverty relief, and action against climate change.
But first: some history. Ben and Jerry, with the help of Furman, opened up their first ice cream shop in 1978, with no idea of how to run a business and with no social mission in mind. After some rough patches, they decided to let Vermonters buy shares in the store, which gave the store some financial stability. To give thanks to the citizens of Vermont, Ben and Jerry made the “world’s largest ice cream sundae” and put it in a swimming pool for everyone to enjoy. This marked the start of their social mission—the fun stuff.
There are three pillars to the social mission of the company, each of the same importance: product, economic, and social. “While they are all equals, the social is the greater of the equals,” according to Jeff Furman. And with the lineup of social causes the company stands for, there’s no doubt in this.
“We’ve always taken risks because we feel it’s a bigger risk not to take them,” explains Furman. The Ben and Jerry’s Foundation was established in 1985, which gave away 7.5% of the company’s profits to social causes, the highest percentage of any company. And better yet, the people who were employed in the ice cream factories got to decide where the money went. Ben & Jerry’s proudly has a domestic partner health insurance plan, pays living wages, and works directly with numerous NGOs around the world. President Reagan named it “U.S. Small Business of the Year.”
In addition to all of this awesome stuff, all of those pints hidden in the back of your freezer are almost 100% fair trade, will be non-GMO by the end of 2014, and are rBGH free. Which may make you feel a little the better about binge-eating a pint or two every now and then. They even stopped using Heath Bars in their flavors because the Hershey doesn’t meet their high requirements. Talk about standing up to The Man.
When asked how other companies can make responsibility profitable, Furman noted that it must relate to consumers. A small percentage of consumers buy Ben & Jerry’s, but those who do are loyal. Having a good social mission can get someone to buy the product once, but it has to be good for them to come back again. (And I don’t think they have a problem there.)
BTW – Friendly reminder: Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry’s on April 8. Just another way the two friends give back. I’ll be there.