Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, Johnson Experience, Johnson MBA

Ben & Jerry’s: Committed to the cause

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Image credit: Flickr/theimpulsivebuy

Ben & Jerry’s is a company that values social justice as much as its profitability and is unabashedly progressive in its politics. This model works, argued Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s global director of social mission, when he spoke to Johnson students at the Breazzano Center Sept. 25 at the invitation of Johnson’s Sustainable Global Enterprise Club.

He framed this argument by first explaining Ben & Jerry’s mission statement, which is broken down into three sections: product, economic, and social. The product mission asks the company to make the best ice cream possible, while the economic mission involves maintaining sustainable financial growth. The social mission, on the other hand, mandates the company to operate in innovative ways in order to improve equity and quality of life for all.

Ben & Jerry's Mission Statement
Ben & Jerry’s mission statement. Credit: Ben & Jerry’s

At the insistence of Ben & Jerry’s leadership, the three prongs of the company’s mission are lined up next to one another in the company mission graphic; they believe that displaying them in any other way would lead employees to subconsciously rank them in importance. “Everyone in the company must see it side-by-side,” said Michalak, who takes personal responsibility for upholding these values as the company’s social mission director. He said he tells fellow employees: “If you see it different anywhere, call me so we can fix that.”

Michalak called out the deliberate and tangible choices Ben & Jerry’s has made to align its business model with its values. One example is the Caring Dairy program, which incentivizes milk suppliers to make more environmentally sustainable and animal-friendly choices by ranking them in a tiered system and paying higher-ranking suppliers more. Internally, Ben & Jerry’s was one of the first companies to pay a living wage and now boasts one of the lowest wage compression ratio for its workforce in the country.

While emphasizing Ben & Jerry’s unique identity and practices, Michalak acknowledged that Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever, a multinational consumer goods giant, in 2000. An atypical acquisition, it provided for an independent board of directors composed of Ben & Jerry’s original leadership and experts in the fields of environmental sustainability, human rights, and other social issues.

“We have people who really hold us to high standards throughout the business,” Michalak noted, referencing board members who are also leaders of progressive NGOs like Greenpeace and the Open Institute. Through this board, he noted, Ben & Jerry’s has not only clung to its roots but is also changing the parent company from within. Unilever’s current CEO, Paul Polman, has visited Ben & Jerry’s more times than any of his predecessors, Michalak said, and has shown a keen interest their corporate social responsibility efforts. He even once sent his entire C-suite from London to observe the ice cream maker in snowy Burlington, Vt.

Ben & Jerry’s employees are as enthusiastic about their ice cream as they are about progressive political and social causes. As photos in Michalak’s presentation imply, Ben & Jerry’s employees are regulars in Washington, D.C., protesting causes related to workplace integrity — such as Congressional loosening of business regulations — while handing out ice cream to sweeten their cause. This is one example of Ben & Jerry’s as a so-called “activist company,” a label that has not always been good for business, as Michalak noted. His company has received criticism from ideological opponents and supporters alike on controversial issues, with the latter considering their involvement as disingenuous and opportunistic.

Throughout his presentation, Michalak pointed to Ben & Jerry’s leadership and culture, the holistic choices it has made, and the socially responsible reputation it has built. “Our mission is in our entire business —it’s a business model,” he emphasized. “It’s not PR, it’s not philanthropy.”

—Written by Matthew Lam, a student writer intern for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

 


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