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Sold Up But Not Sold Out, Ben and Jerry are Still the Poster Boys for Fair Trade
Vermont's finest double discuss American pie, greenwash and giving Unilever some sticky moments
Ben Cohen, one half of Ben & Jerry's, is recalling the time he got in trouble with the bosses at Unilever, which bought the ice-cream maker in 2000.
Coca-Cola had just taken a stake in Innocent drinks, a small British maker of smoothies with a reputation for being a socially responsible business. A British reporter called to get Cohen's opinion. He, after all, had a similar experience. Ben & Jerry's, which had been founded in the liberal US state of Vermont in the 1970s, was the prototype hippy business-with-a-conscience, promoting liberal causes on the lids of its tubs, giving a percentage of its profits to charity and having a rule that no executive would earn more than five times the lowest-paid worker. Unilever, by contrast, could be a synonym for the faceless multinational, bestriding the globe, selling detergents and cleaning products.
"So the BBC called me up and said 'you have been in a somewhat similar situation; you were a socially responsible little business, you got bought by some big giant, you know, what do you think?'" he recalls.
"I said, 'you know, it doesn't sound good to me' ... I think that if you get bought by a company that doesn't really share the same values, it is hard to have your values continue and then I suggested ..." he says, starting to laugh, "that it would be good for Unilever to abide by their agreements - and they didn't like that." The laughs get louder.
"You know," adds Jerry Greenfield, his co-founder in the business, "we have these annual franchise meetings every year, so it's a gathering in January, we have all the franchise shops of Ben & Jerry's around the world and the head of the franchise department always tries to sit down with Ben and me before the meeting, to find out what Ben is going to talk about. And he never tells him, because he doesn't know till like 10 minutes before anyway, but their people are always a little nervous, always a little on edge about what Ben is going to talk about."
The pair, raised on Long Island, New York, and both 59, were in London to promote the announcement that Ben & Jerry's planned to take all the ingredients in its ice cream from Fairtrade sources by 2013. Walking into the room to meet them, they bellow their names in turn "Ben", "Jerry", and offer a firm handshake, as though they long ago dispensed with the need of a surname.
Both wear their liberal views on their sleeves. But on the evidence of an hour-long meeting, Greenfield is the more emollient; Cohen, the sharper-edged, less predictable of the two, swallowing half-sneers and chuckles of disbelief as he touches on subjects ranging from the US military budget to Wal-Mart and the relationship with Unilever, which he describes as a "forced marriage".
Best friends since school, they sound like an old married couple, finishing each other's sentences, constantly referring to the other by name and making each other laugh; deep sonorous, belly laughs. The pair stood back from day-to-day running of the firm years ago. Greenfield describes their role as akin to limbo. "We are employees. We have no responsibilities at the company and no authority," he says, with some authority. But they still act as spokesmen when the company does something they approve of, such as the move to Fairtrade, with Unilever doubtless realising the maverick pair can still generate column inches.
I wonder, given his remarks about Innocent, whether Cohen would accuse Unilever of "greenwash" - using Ben & Jerry's as a socially responsible fig leaf.
Greenfield says not. "But on the other hand," says Cohen, not quite able, or apparently willing, to stop himself, "Unilever quite likes to hold up Ben & Jerry's as kind of the poster child of socially responsible business and does use that to try to give an example of 'here is how socially concerned Unilever is, you know, we have the Ben & Jerry's brand'. And you know Ben and Jerry's does happen to be very high profile but when Unilever holds up Ben & Jerry's as 'our example of how socially responsible we are', you know, we should understand that Unilever is what? - a $40bn-$50bn business and we're a little piece of that." So it is greenwash? "Yeah, yeah."
Even so, Cohen says he is more convinced than ever that business can be a force for good. "If there is any hope for our countries and society in general, it is through business. Business has risen to this level of the most powerful force in society. I mean it used to be that the most powerful forces in society were religion and then nation states and the purpose of those two entities was to support the common good, and maybe they didn't do everything exactly right, but now those two are subservient to business."
Greenfield says that trust in corporations "is pretty darn low" at the moment, but suggests that is a good thing. "Well, along with trust in the government," adds Cohen. "And you do know the entity that people most trust in the US?" The church? "The Pentagon," he says, with another big laugh.
Greenfield spends much of his time on the company's charitable foundation; Cohen on his mission to shift money out of the Pentagon (he is currently making a documentary on this). Cohen almost expresses surprise that Ben & Jerry's has managed to maintain its progressive identity. "The company took a major stand on the issue of gay marriage. It renamed its Chubby Hubby flavour to Hubby Hubby and people loved it. Sure, some people hated it. But our consumers loved it. And it is interesting that Unilever itself is very gay friendly."
"Yeah, that's been sort of an unusual thing," Greenfield adds. "We came out with this flavour American Pie [which had a pie chart showing how much taxpayers' money is spent on defence], and we weren't involved in any of those conversations, but I don't think there is a lot of pushback on that [from Unilever]."
Cohen describes the move to Fairtrade as "certainly the best thing that Ben & Jerry's has ever done since the acquisition. I think it is the harbinger that the day of first-world corporations making huge profits off the exploitation of the third world is over.
"I mean it was even our president George Bush," he says with a big laugh, "who said that poverty is the breeding ground of terrorism. I mean if you are not going to treat the world justly, you are not going to have peace."
Then he adds: "Well, it would certainly be a lot better for the world and a much stronger statement if Unilever said everything we sell, all $40bn a year, is now going to be fair trade, but Ben & Jerry's was never Unilever, and you know, I never had any illusions."
The pair say chose Britain to launch the Fairtrade initiative partly because Europe has gone further in adopting the idea. The old world, Cohen says, "is a lot more civilised, as evidenced by things like how advanced Fairtrade is here and how behind the US is. The US excels at maximising profits and exporting weapons."
The conversation drifts to politics. Cohen is disappointed with President Barack Obama. "Obama was dealt an incredibly bad hand. But the continued absurdity of thinking you can defeat terrorism by having a global war without end and bombing and killing populations continues to be misguided," Greenfield says.
"So wasn't that the most amazing thing? Not George Bush being in office, but how he got re-elected? Was that a shock? Man, how discouraging was that as an American."
I wonder what they think of Sarah Palin, and the room erupts into laughter. Greenfield yells in the din: "Weird country, isn't it?"
Cream of the crop
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield became friends because they were "the two slowest, fattest kids in the gym class", according to their official biography.
They remained close through college, Greenfield working as a lab technician and Cohen training in art therapy. But when they were 27 they decided to set up their own company. The first idea was a bagel business but the equipment needed cost $40,000, so instead they took a $5 correspondence course on how to make ice cream.
Their first shop was at a disused petrol station in Burlington, Vermont, and became so successful the pair decided to sell up, fearing they were in danger of becoming the type of capitalists they abhorred. "The idea of becoming real businesspeople had negative connotations," they say in the book. Greenfield went to Arizona and Cohen put the shop up for sale.
But Cohen then met an eccentric 80-year-old artist and restaurateur who suggested that they could create a business that was a force for progressive change.
Today, there are 58 flavours for sale in 26 countries. Known as much for an affection for bad puns as their liberal views, flavours include Jamaican Me Crazy, Cherry Garcia and Phish Food.