How Ben & Jerry’s Perfected the Delicate Recipe for Corporate Activism
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Anuradha Mittal was about to step out of her home in Oakland, Calif., on the last Friday of May, but first she had one last email to send. She was on her way to one of the demonstrations that had broken out around the world five days after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Like hundreds of other protesters, she’d be praying and dancing late into the night, in streets blurred by billowing tear gas and teeming with riot police.
The note Mittal, the board chair of Ben & Jerry’s, was sending was to the chief executive officer, Matthew McCarthy, requesting that a statement be prepared by Monday. She wanted the ice cream brand to express support for the Black Lives Matter movement and decry the violence against Floyd, who’d died while being restrained by a White law enforcement officer less than 15 minutes after his arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes. McCarthy replied immediately to assure her his team was already on it.
Over the weekend, the CEO, who sports Woodstock-chic elbow-length curls and a straggly beard, consulted two advocacy groups the company works with, Color of Change and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for advice on how to phrase an unequivocal takedown of racial injustice. He was one of five Ben & Jerry’s employees, including executives with curious titles like global social mission officer, making edits to a Google Docs draft written primarily by the company’s global head of activism strategy, Chris Miller. On Monday a final version was sent for approval to Color of Change and the NAACP, and then to Ben & Jerry’s board.
The 704-word text linked Floyd and other recent victims of fatal persecution, such as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, with historical ones like Martin Luther King Jr. It supported the creation of “a national task force that would draft bipartisan legislation aimed at ending racial violence and increasing police accountability.” It advocated for the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvigorate its Civil Rights Division and reinstate policies rolled back by the Trump administration, such as consent decrees to curb police abuses. It called on the president to “disavow white supremacists and nationalist groups that overtly support him” instead of “using his Twitter feed to promote and normalize their ideas and agendas.” And it said Congress should create a commission to study the effects of slavery and discrimination dating back to 1619, the year the first Africans arrived in Virginia in shackles.
When Ben & Jerry’s posted the statement on June 2 to its website and social media accounts under the title “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy: Silence Is NOT An Option,” hundreds of thousands of people rapidly circulated it. It was lauded as the most detailed and powerful message from any corporation seeking to condemn the latest high-profile homicide in a chain of abuse Black people have suffered at the hands of White people across centuries.
Other, more somnambulant businesses found themselves on the defensive. Facebook Inc. saw hundreds of employees stage a virtual walkout after it refused to add labels to false or incendiary Trump posts that apparently violated its policies; the furor prompted some of the world’s largest marketers, including Verizon, Coca-Cola, Lego, and Ben & Jerry’s owner, Unilever, to stop advertising their products on the platform for at least a month. Google, Twitter, and YouTube, which have also been criticized for inaction on misinformation and abuse, were hit by boycotts, too. And the renewed attention to racial injustice led some companies and sports teams to reconsider problematic brand identities and logos. PepsiCo Inc. and Mars Inc. said they would retire imagery associated with Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice, which both featured caricatures of Black cooks. Washington’s NFL franchise announced it would change its name, a racist slur against Native Americans.
Mittal, a human-rights and environmental activist who founded the Oakland Institute, a policy group, says Ben & Jerry’s firm stance was especially motivated by the White House’s response, which she viewed as fanning the crisis. “I think of the killings that have happened as no different than lynchings—it has just laid bare again how deep the racism is,” says Mittal, who’s been on the board for almost 13 years and was appointed chair in 2018. “I think that’s why, as a company, we can’t wait for others to make it a tipping point. It is really for each one of us to ensure that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor do not just become a hashtag.”
When this year’s protests began, many companies tried to write tickets seating themselves on the right side of history, expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed in 2013 after the acquittal of the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, in Florida. Some businesses have come under pressure in recent years to find callings higher than driving shareholder value, as shoppers turn to brands with a more conscious approach to capitalism. A survey conducted after Floyd’s killing by Morning Consult LLC, a data analysis firm, found that about two-thirds of Americans from Generation Z, the sought-after cohort of high schoolers and college students, said the way corporations and their brands reacted to the BLM movement would permanently affect their future purchasing patterns.
But in the age of going viral, attempting to speak to more than four centuries of racial injustice can be perilous. Perhaps most famously, PepsiCo tried and failed in 2017 to evoke the BLM movement by airing a three-minute ad that depicted Kendall Jenner, a White fashion model from the Kardashian clan, handing an ice-cold Pepsi to a policeman flanked by other officers in protective gear as an ethnically diverse crowd of actors cheered her on. Companies keep trying, though. Following the Floyd protests, Righteous Gelato introduced a chocolate-flavored Black Lives Matter gelato, then quickly pulled it after an online backlash. (The White designer who shepherded the branding later conceded she may not have been best suited for the task.) PrettyLittleThing, an online retailer, posted a photo on social media showing jet-black and peach-toned hands clasped above the motto “Stand Together,” only to be criticized for depicting the Black hand in an unlifelike hue. A distillery in Bristol, England, tweeted a crass reference to its gin’s “high flammability” making it a favorite of looters.
Other efforts were baldly hypocritical. On Blackout Tuesday, one of the millions of social media accounts posting a single black tile in support of BLM belonged to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, which split acrimoniously with quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality toward Black people. Washington’s franchise posted a tile, too. L’Oréal SA, whose black square was overlaid with the words “Speaking out is worth it,” was criticized for insincerity by Munroe Bergdorf, a Black English model, who said the cosmetics company had dropped her from a 2017 campaign after she spoke out about White supremacy. (The company responded by apologizing for the incident and adding her to its U.K. diversity and inclusion board.)
A McDonald’s Corp. statement that each Black victim was “one of us” prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to ask the fast-food chain why it was denying hundreds of thousands of Black workers access to paid sick and family leave during a global pandemic. (The company offers some paid leave to workers at corporate-owned locations but doesn’t guarantee it to those employed by franchisees.) Starbucks Corp., which posted that it stood in solidarity with Black partners, customers, and communities and that it wouldn’t be a bystander, also said its baristas wouldn’t be permitted to wear BLM clothing, until an outcry and boycott threats led it to reverse course.
“Companies have to actually, truly, be ready and willing to address their impact, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. Robinson, who’s addressed audiences at a number of leading corporations about structural racism—the deep-seated influence racial bias has on power structures—and the importance of quantifying diversity, was one of the experts McCarthy called to help Ben & Jerry’s draft its response. “A lot of companies say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but Ben & Jerry’s has actually put energy, time, and flavor behind Black Lives Matter. This is not new for them.”
In 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, friends since grade school, completed a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making and founded Ben & Jerry’s out of a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vt. While most shoppers came to know the brand for apolitical waistline crimes such as Caramel Chew Chew, it simultaneously became a committed corporate activist, campaigning for causes such as same-sex marriage, criminal justice reform, and nature conservation. Its ethos closely tracked the Lennonesque worldview of its creators, who often seemed more comfortable hosting their One World One Heart music festival, a kaleidoscope of tie-dyed roots rock and psychedelic Ben & Jerry’s motifs, than participating in quarterly earnings calls.
Some of the company’s most important and long-standing commitments have been on the environmental front, and it hasn’t hesitated to link its product directly with its ideals. In the late ’80s, it released Rainforest Crunch, a flavor that incorporated nuts responsibly sourced from indigenous Amazonian tribes, helping spark a national conversation about deforestation. Over time, it refined a model for activism centered on campaigns. Each week a team meets to identify and discuss pressing social justice issues. After Ben & Jerry’s decides to align itself with a cause, the team taps experts at leading advocacy groups and spends at least a year working on persuasive language. Then it disseminates material to the company’s website, social media channels, and ice-cream tubs, often building up to a specific event.
One of Ben & Jerry’s environmental campaigns, an 18-month initiative called Save Our Swirled, culminated at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where organizers wheeled in a giant papier-mâché statue of an ice-cream cone with a melting, globe-patterned scoop. The company’s ongoing climate messaging includes a website page listing “endangered pints,” whose supply chains are at risk of disruption by climate change. (Tragically, the list includes every flavor containing chocolate, as cocoa production in West Africa suffers from rising temperatures and lower rainfall.) Related blog posts read like abstracts of essays by Sierra Club scientific advisers with a fondness for exclamation points and cutesy vernacular.
Ben & Jerry’s activism didn’t slow through a mid-1980s initial public offering or its acquisition for $326 million in 2000 by Unilever, the sprawling Anglo-Dutch conglomerate behind Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Unilever is also the world’s largest maker of ice cream and gelato, selling supermarket and concessionary brands such as Breyers, Cornetto, Fudgsicle, Grom, Klondike, Magnum, Popsicle, Solero, and Talenti. (In recent months, a number of these products have suffered from a collapse in tourism to some European countries due to the coronavirus.) According to Brad Edmondson’s book Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s, the takeover agreement took about two years to negotiate, in part because Cohen and Greenfield were adamant that the business retain its own board of directors and independence over what the company calls its three-part mission—economic, product, and social. Mittal says many employees viewed Unilever as an “8,000-pound gorilla moving in.” Ultimately, it took charge of the economic part of Ben & Jerry’s mission and left the other two to the subsidiary.
At times, Ben & Jerry’s activism has tested Unilever’s promises. All of its current directors save for two Unilever executives are activists or have extensive experience in the charity sector; at one point, more members of the creamery’s board had been arrested while protesting than not. Ben & Jerry’s (and Ben and Jerry) vocally supported the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011. And when the company took a stance a decade ago against ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms and erected the first of several billboards about the cause, then-CEO Jostein Solheim got a call from Kees Kruythoff, who headed Unilever’s business in the U.S. and served on the board of the Grocery Manufacturers of America Inc., which is pro-GMO. Solheim referred him to the commitment to advocacy Unilever had agreed to in its ownership contract.
Around the same time, Paul Polman became CEO of Unilever and began a 10-year effort to turn the parent corporation into a testbed for a more socially adroit way of doing business. As he worked to cut carbon emissions at its factories and right human and environmental wrongs in its supply chain, among other initiatives, he visited the Ben & Jerry’s team in Vermont at least once a year to learn from its campaigns. Unilever’s current CEO, Alan Jope, pledged when he took over in 2019 to consider selling off brands that couldn’t operate in a manner that benefits society; he’s described Ben & Jerry’s as a guide for how other Unilever properties can marry purpose with profit. One of its flagship brands, Dove soap, followed Ben & Jerry’s lead on BLM, saying it would advance its own calls for legislative action and extend its work with such organizations as the National Black Child Development Institute to address racial justice for the next generation of Americans.
On the other hand, Unilever has been pilloried recently for continuing to market melanin-suppressing skin-whitening creams, which critics say promote racist preferences for lighter skin in some Asian countries. The company has said only that it will change the name of its Fair & Lovely line, which generates more than $500 million in annual revenue, to Glow & Lovely, and that it will include women of all skin tones in future marketing materials.
Ben & Jerry’s has its issues, too, starting at the source: It makes its money from a deeply unhealthy product. That’s a particularly uncomfortable fact at a moment when glucose is increasingly regarded as the new tobacco, and it clashes, too, with the company’s work in support of Black Americans, who are more likely to contract Type 2 diabetes than Whites. The company also baffled many progressive customers in 1997—and dismayed some members of its own board—when, despite its history of campaigning to end gun violence, it appointed Perry Odak, who’d previously run a firearms manufacturer, as CEO. Odak’s fractious tenure ended less than a year after the sale to Unilever.
And Mittal is quick to acknowledge that Ben & Jerry’s has shortcomings of its own where inclusion is concerned. While the board’s seven directors do include four women and three people of color, two of whom are Black, the majority of its workforce and leadership, she says, remain “all very White.” In part this reflects Vermont’s demographic makeup—the state is 94% White—so Ben & Jerry’s has been seeking other ways of becoming more diverse. Mittal says the company is, for instance, examining how to source a greater share of its ingredients from Black-owned farms.
Ben & Jerry’s long track record of activism has tended to mitigate any perceived sins, helping it avoid accusations of insincerity when it speaks out. And the company has largely managed not to be regarded as opportunistic—of using social consciousness to increase sales. In recent years, keeping revenue up has become ever more crucial as it fends off a rash of insurgents, from low-calorie alternatives such as Halo Top to chichi probiotic choices such as Foxy’s Thoughtful Ice Cream. Solheim says sales were never the point, stressing that Ben & Jerry’s campaigns have neither hurt nor helped demand during his eight years running the company. He traces the fundamental appeal of its pints to their indulgent flavors, as well as to carefully timed price reductions and product releases. In his view, the company’s expressions of principle serve, rather, to cement its long-term standing with socially minded fans. “Loyalty is pretty valuable in this business,” he says. “If we share values on climate, same-sex marriage rights, racism, I think that’s a deeper bond than sugar and fat.”
These days, Ben & Jerry’s activism team counts almost 20 full-time members, including characters such as Dave Rapaport—the global social mission officer—who once spent several days in the Nevada desert being chased by armed security forces in helicopters after he tried to stop a nuclear weapons test explosion. It has a budget that’s as large as a fifth of the marketing department’s discretionary spending, which runs into the millions of dollars. (The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which the company funds, also earmarks about $2.5 million annually to grassroots causes across the U.S. Running the show is Miller, whose posts on Ben & Jerry’s social media accounts have helped bring more than 130,000 new signatories to Color of Change petitions in the past year alone.)
On Juneteenth, the activism team published a blog post announcing its next project: defunding U.S. police forces. That project, like the statement on the George Floyd killing Miller drafted, follows from a recent emphasis on criminal justice reform, a cause Ben & Jerry’s has supported since at least the late ’80s, when it began sourcing the brownie bites found in some flavors from New York’s Greyston Bakery, which provides jobs and training to formerly incarcerated people and those who are homeless.
In 2015 the foundation brought executives and board members to North Carolina, where Reverend William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement on civil and environmental rights was taking off. Three years later, ahead of the U.S. midterm elections, the creamery rebranded its New York Super Fudge Chunk to Pecan Resist in response to Trump administration policies that threatened the civil rights of women, people of color, refugees, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. (The pun on pe-can was more evident in Vermont than, say, Georgia, where the word is pronounced pa-KAHN.) Last year it introduced Justice ReMix’d, a variety that includes cinnamon bun and spicy fudge brownie chunks, in partnership with the Advancement Project, a racial justice advocacy group. Its factories are also outfitted with art painted by former inmates, and it’s brought in political figures such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the late U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia to speak to its workforce and counsel management on the race-related imbalances that pervade the judicial system.
Ben & Jerry’s social justice efforts accelerated a year after the trip to North Carolina, when its first blog post on BLM drew so much traffic it broke its website. The more comprehensive statement the company issued in June “came from a muscle that was continuously being developed from the board and management team over time,” says Daryn Dodson, a board member and managing director at Illumen Capital Management LLC, an investment firm focused on reducing implicit bias. “It didn’t just happen. It came out of years of work and commitment of which we’ll never stop.”
Conversations about the root causes of racial inequality and systemic abuses by law enforcement still seem to overwhelm large swaths of the business community at times. It’s challenging, Miller acknowledges, even for a company that’s long tried to be a rising voice for change. He mentions a recent conference call related to their new campaign, during which the debate became so heated he had to tell everyone to park it for a minute. “It felt like a conversation I would have had back in my Greenpeace days,” he says. “I made some comment that this is likely not a conversation that is happening right now at Häagen-Dazs.”
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