Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s

by Arnab Mukherjee, MBA ‘15 (12/10/13)

Arnab Mukherjee, MBA ‘15

The Ethics Action Group hosted author Brad Edmondson, BA ’81, and Jeff Furman, Chairman of the Board at Ben & Jerry’s to discuss Edmondson’s new book and Ben & Jerry’s mission to achieve “linked prosperity.”

ice cream socialOn November 21, the Ethics Action Group (EAG) hosted author Brad Edmondson, BA ‘81, and Jeff Furman, Chairman of the Board at Ben & Jerry's. The focus of the discussion was Edmondson’s new book, Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s and Ben & Jerry’s mission to achieve “linked prosperity,” the idea that the owners of the company should share their success with all their stakeholders – employees, suppliers, distributors, customers etc. I had the opportunity to attend this discussion and learn about Ben & Jerry’s history and mission.

Although Ben & Jerry’s did not endorse or fund Edmondson’s book, the company was extremely receptive to the idea of documenting their journey as a mission-driven company and opened their doors to Edmondson to conduct his research freely. Edmondson described his book as a five act “tragic comedy.” Act I sets the background for the foundation of Ben & Jerry’s in 1978, when founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield completed a correspondence course in ice cream making from the Pennsylvania State University Creamery. With an initial investment of just $12,000, Ben and Jerry started making delicious, creamy, and uniquely-flavored ice cream in Burlington, Vermont. Furman added that the founders lacked business experience, but were obsessed with a high quality product. 

Initially there wasn’t a social mission but it emerged when the founders searched for creative ways to raise capital by making an intra-state stock offering in Vermont, thanks to a legal loophole. More than 3,000 locals who had purchased Ben & Jerry’s stock attended the first shareholders’ meeting, shaping the social mission of the company and integrating it into the fabric of the company. They fostered a relaxed and progressive culture at the company and were always conscious of their social mission. In the early 1980s, Pillsbury tried to limit Ben & Jerry’s distribution in Boston by illegally strong-arming distributers.  Ben & Jerry’s responded with a wildly successful creative marketing campaign with the tagline “What’s the doughboy afraid of?” appealing to people’s sense of what was fair and what was fun.

In Act II, Edmondson describes the opening of Ben & Jerry’s first factory in Waterbury and its rapid growth, while firmly establishing its double bottom line and socially-conscious philosophy of “linked prosperity.” Act III starts with the opening of a second factory, which was poorly constructed and mismanaged. While the company remained profitable, it went through a management crisis as they felt the need to hire professionals in light of their rapid growth and struggled to maintain their double bottom line. In Act IV, dubbed the dark period, a new CEO was intent on maximizing shareholder value, grooming the company for sale. In 2000, Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s after 2 years of negotiations. While price was not the main point of contention during the acquisition, the struggle to keep Ben & Jerry’s independent was, as was the sales agreement with Unilever. Upon acquisition, Unilever was primarily concerned with increased efficiency at Ben & Jerry’s, which led to a decrease in product quality. While the board did not initially address these issues, they negotiated a new and unique sales agreement, which provided the board with real power in perpetuity. It required that Unilever be committed to Ben & Jerry’s social mission, including terms to pay employees a living wage and benefits, include fair-trade inputs, and more. 

Act V shows where the company stands today, much of it because of the sales agreement with Unilever. The new Ben & Jerry’s CEO understands the mission of the company and is aligned with its board of directors. The company has successfully recovered from its dark period, and has seen growth while staying true to its social mission. The company has also invested heavily in fostering a supportive and familial workplace, where employees are encouraged to continue their education via coursework, attending industry forums, etc. Employees are actively engaged in the decision-making process; in particular, employees choose the initiatives and causes that are supported and sponsored by the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. As a result, Ben & Jerry’s has a very low employee turnover rate, unlike its parent company, Unilever.

The most important takeaway, for me, from the Ben & Jerry’s journey is that businesses are very powerful institutions that can take a stand and make a difference in this world. Businesses can not only set the standards for best practices as employers but also act as a force of social change. The Ben & Jerry’s example illustrates how growth and economic success are not independent or mutually exclusive from having a social mission and the benefit of standing by it regardless of the crossroads at which one might stand.