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Ben & Jerry's Radical Ice Cream Dreams

It has now become trendy for corporations to take a stance on social-justice issues without fear of hurting the bottom line. In fact, it’s widely seen as a way to do the opposite, and that has a lot to do with groundwork laid by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream. The two childhood friends started out making ice cream in 1978, opening their first shop in a remodeled gas station in Burlington, Vt., and turned their business into one known around the world — both for its distinct chunk-filled product as well as for its determination to be a force for good via community involvement, environmentally sustainable practices and the creation of a still-lucrative alternative to the simple pursuit of profit.

Though Cohen and Greenfield, both 69, long ago ceded control of the company, they’re still involved in promoting its social-justice campaigns, and their spirit is still found in the company’s progressive practices. (Maybe you saw its corporate statement, released in response to George Floyd’s killing, about dismantling white supremacy.) ‘‘Using ice cream to talk about difficult issues creates an opening,’’ Cohen said. ‘‘You can talk in a way that’s tinged with lightness, which makes it much more palatable.’’ Which is something he and Greenfield know a little bit about.

If you look at the history of Ben & Jerry’s, you always had noble goals: You wanted to keep control of the company. You wanted the highest-paid employee to never make more than five times that of the lowest-paid employee. You didn’t want to keep growing for the sake of growth. And yet you had to sell the company, that pay ratio wasn’t maintained and the company just What does that show us about how capitalism can subsume good intentions? 

Cohen: The end result of capitalism is not unlike a Monopoly game. One guy gets all the bucks, and everybody else loses. What we have in America is a democracy that’s run for the benefit of corporations. That’s a disaster. We’re looking at it, we’re living it and it continues to get worse. Does that answer your question?


It didn’t really, but I can’t tell if you went off on a tangent or were being evasive. 


Cohen: I’m not trying to evade. I was going off on a tangent. There’s no doubt that Ben & Jerry’s has influenced capitalism more than capitalism influenced Ben & Jerry’s. Ben & Jerry’s and a few others — The Body Shop, Patagonia — were pioneers in creating a model of business that saw making profits to be coequal with its purpose of improving society beyond just providing jobs. There’s a bunch of corporations genuinely starting to see the light. Granted, capitalism subsumed the concept of socially responsible business. Every major corporation now has a corporate social responsibility officer. The biggest problem in terms of Ben & Jerry’s being subsumed is that if you see the major problem in our society as being the continuing concentration of wealth into fewer hands, that we ended up getting owned by a works against what I believe is needed to create a more equitable society. But with that exception, the company continues to do as much as it can to heal the wounds of capitalism.


Is there anything that makes you squeamish about Ben & Jerry’s making ice cream flavors called Pecan Resist, which is a reference to resisting certain Trump administration’s policies, or Justice ReMix’d, whose name alludes to the company’s work in criminal-justice reform? Coming up with politically driven flavor names was not something you did much of when you were running things. Isn’t there something glib about it? 


Greenfield: It doesn’t make me squeamish if the initiative is genuine. If you talk about Justice ReMix’d, the flavor is there to call attention to the issue of criminal-justice reform, and the activities the company has done — one of them was closing down the Workhouse jail in St. Louis. Cohen: Greenfield: Right, and another was changing the budget in the school system in Miami and hiring counselors instead of police officers. Cohen: Greenfield: When those flavors are part of real action that the company is undertaking in partnership with nonprofits, I think it’s great to be tying ice cream into social action. Cohen: You know, the company once came out with a flavor called The packaging showed the pie chart of the federal discretionary budget; it was advocating shifting money out of nuclear weapons into children’s services. Greenfield: A pie chart of the federal discretionary budget is a well-known marketing technique for selling ice cream.

I’m salivating just thinking about it. On the subject of flavors  

Greenfield: I want to interrupt you for a second. Ben and I are always talking about the mission of the company, and people always want to talk about flavors. People are fascinated by flavors.

So am I. What would go in a Joe Biden flavor, and what would go in a Donald Trump flavor? 

Cohen: A Trump flavor, it’s not palatable. You can’t make Trump into ice cream. You could make him into coal.

What about Biden? 

Cohen: It’s an interesting question. [Sighs.] You know, it’d be better than nothing.

Ben, I know you’re but what would it take to get you excited about Biden? As a presidential candidate, not as a flavor of ice cream. Cohen: If he would essentially adopt Bernie’s platform. They talk about the Hillary wing of the party and the Bernie wing of the party. Biden epitomizes the Hillary wing, the wing in which he went to a group of big-money donors and said: We could go back to a pre-Trump country, and we would still need all the change represented by Bernie’s platform. Going back to a pre-Trump country will not address systemic problems that our country faces in terms of fairness, equality, and justice.

Now I have an ice cream etiquette question. You know how some people dig the chunks out of Ben & Jerry’s? Cohen: Marriages have split because of that.

What’s your position? I think it’s selfish. Cohen: If your partner also likes the chunks, it’s inconsiderate. But if it’s yourself who’s doing it, it’s fine. Greenfield: The term for this is “mining.” Mining for chunks. I’ve never been tempted to do it. I don’t see the point. Although recently Ben & Jerry’s started selling chocolate-chip-cookie-dough pellets separately from ice cream for those people who wanted to dig them out. Cohen: Who wanted to mainline. Greenfield: Mainline? No, Ben.

And why did Ben & Jerry’s never sell gallons? Would they have been prohibitively expensive? Cohen: Yes, the expense. The other reason is that as ice cream hangs out in your modern self-defrosting freezer, it degrades. If it’s in a small package, you finish it quicker, and there’s less chance of it degrading in quality. Greenfield: There’s an opposing theory, though, Ben. It’s that the more ice cream people have in their freezer, the more they’ll actually eat. But that only matters if one were concerned about selling more ice cream, which Ben and I are not anymore. Now, there was a time when Ben and I were absolutely trying to sell ice cream. We were out there on the road hawking it. Cohen: It was like an adventure in the wilderness. Greenfield: We have incredible memories of going to restaurants that were going out of business, and some auction company was selling off their old stuff, and we were bidding on things and loading them up in a truck and driving them home. That’s what I remember more fondly than any business things.

Is it right that before you guys started in ice cream, you had some goofy idea for a business involving delivering bagels and lox and The New York Times to people? Greenfield: Come on, man. What’s so goofy about that? Cohen: We were calling that business U.B.S., United Bagel Service. But we wanted to locate our business in a rural college town, because that’s the kind of place where Eventually we realized that there weren’t that many people in rural college towns looking to have the Sunday New York Times and bagels, cream cheese and lox delivered to their door.

Maybe I’m too uptight about money, but it’s surprising to me that you’ve managed to stay such good friends after being in business together all these years. Money was never an issue? Greenfield: I don’t think we ever had a disagreement about money. The most famous disagreement was about the size of the chunks in the ice cream. Ben is well known for his inability to smell and therefore his inability to taste. So he was always focused on texture in ice cream. He liked big chunks of cookies and candies. But I was the one making the ice cream, and it’s hard to put big chunks in ice cream, which is why no other ice cream companies do it. I was advocating that a larger number of smaller chunks be well distributed throughout the ice cream. Ben was insisting on bigger chunks. Ben was right. Cohen: I was eating Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch last night and was tunneling around for the big chunks.

I believe the term is mining. Greenfield: Tunneling works also. Cohen:Tunneling works great. But, you know, it’s disappointing when you keep tunneling around and you never run into what you’re aiming for. I still think we ought to put a golden cone inside some pint — do the Willy Wonka golden-ticket thing. I can’t understand how we have yet to do that. Greenfield: Ben, in case you hadn’t figured this out, did all the marketing for the company.

Jerry, there has been a proliferation of other premium and ice cream brands. There’s Ample Hills. There’s Van Leeuwen. There’s Jeni’s Splendid. And a result is that it’s not uncommon to go into a grocery store and see a $9 pint of ice cream. What’s your perspective on that change in the market? Greenfield: It’s kind of crazy for me to say this, but it seems like a lot of money to pay for a pint of ice cream. Ben and I remember when Ben & Jerry’s pints of ice cream first started going over $2 a pint. We were terrified that nobody was going to buy it. Cohen: There’s a bunch of artisanal guys now, and one of the great things about the ice cream business, which is one of the reasons we got into it, is that there’s a very low barrier to entry. The equipment to make very high quality ice cream on a small scale is not very expensive.

Do either of you have non-Ben & Jerry’s ice creams in your freezers? Cohen: No. Greenfield: No. But if any of those other ice cream companies wanted to give me some ice cream, I would be all for it.

To get back to a couple of bigger ideas — Greenfield: The other thing I want to mention is that Ben and I are sometimes asked, “Why has Ben & Jerry’s been successful?” We usually say it’s because of three things: really high quality ice cream, great ingredients, very unusual flavors – and also the activist social mission of the company. Some other company could start making ice cream with big chunks the same way Ben & Jerry’s does, but Ben & Jerry’s having this activist, outspoken social mission — other companies can’t copy that. It’s not something you can just say. It has to be who the people are.

How close of a connection do you feel to Ben & Jerry’s today? Greenfield:You may know that Ben and I both still work at the company. But as we always tell people, we’re not involved in management or operations. I’m proud of the mission of the company and how it’s being actualized. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you feel seeing your name on ice cream containers in stores everywhere?” I don’t feel anything from that. Cohen: It’s like the company is a child who has moved out of the house and is now on their own. You hope that your child will have the values that you tried to instill. I’m amazed to see that the values are there. The regret I have is that the overwhelming problem in the world is the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer entities, and having Ben & Jerry’s owned by one of those is, to me, unfortunate. When the company was sold, something I resisted, there were people trying to comfort me by saying, “Now Ben & Jerry’s can influence Unilever.” I thought that was a bunch of [expletive]. But I think that it has had a positive influence on Unilever. I certainly wouldn’t say Unilever is values-led, but it is starting to integrate more That’s good.

If you two are not in operations and not in management, what exactly do you do? Are you mascots? Cohen: We have no responsibilities and no authority, but no, I don’t regard myself as a mascot. I regard myself as a person When Ben & Jerry’s does something that aligns with my belief in justice, I do everything I can to support that. Greenfield: When the company introduced Justice ReMix’d, Ben and I were involved in that. Last year, the company introduced a flavor at a United Nations forum in Geneva that was called Cone Together that was related to refugee rights. Ben and I were involved in that, too. We also go to the every year and hang out with the shop owners and talk about our hopes for the company. Even though we don’t really influence things, people like to hear what we’re thinking. So, David, can I ask you a question?

Of course. Greenfield: You’ve done a lot of reading about Ben & Jerry’s. Is this what you were expecting? Where have we let you down?

You haven’t let me down. But I wonder if there’s more you could be saying about what Ben & Jerry’s being bought by Unilever ultimately meant for the values you originally tried to instill in the company. Greenfield: Well, so, Ben & Jerry’s has been part of Unilever for about 20 years. For the first number of years, I think Unilever did not appreciate the mission of Ben & Jerry’s, and its energy went into integrating Ben & Jerry’s into the Unilever system. During that time, the social mission of the company suffered. The company as a brand also suffered. About ten years ago, Unilever named who told us that his assignment was to re-radicalize Ben & Jerry’s. And during that time, Ben & Jerry’s rediscovered its soul. Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported Occupy Wall Street. Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported Black Lives Matter before most other companies. Now within Unilever, there’s an incredible amount of respect for what Ben & Jerry’s has done. I mean, this last statement by Ben & Jerry’s after the George Floyd killing: There wasn’t any other business talking about dismantling white supremacy.

How skeptical, though, should we be of the intentions behind statements like that? So many socially progressive statements that companies are making these days obviously also double as marketing. Cohen: The deal about Ben & Jerry’s is that when your company is acting on its values and those values resonate with your consumers’ values, it’s an incredibly deep connection based on justice, fairness, equality — the stuff that we thought the country is supposed to be about when they taught us in elementary school. The other thing is that businesses are the most powerful force in our society, and things have gotten to such a state with Trumpism that businesses — which had always said, “We’re not going to take political stands” — have to make their voice heard because there’s no other powerful actor doing it. Money talks.

Do you ever meet people who are surprised that Ben and Jerry are real guys? And that you’re them? And that you’re still alive? Cohen: Maybe two years after we started, when the business was this little homemade ice cream parlor in an old gas station in Burlington, Jerry and I were hanging around outside the store, and a boy and his father were walking in. The little boy said, “Daddy, is there really a Ben and a Jerry?” And the father said, “Maybe many, many years ago.” Greenfield: I’ve had people ask me, “Are you the original Jerry?” I say: “There used to be another Jerry. I got hired to be the next one.” My wife gets a kick out of that.

After all this time in and around the ice cream business, what have you learned about what ice cream means to Americans? Cohen: It’s about happiness. Ice cream is present at most any celebration, birthday, wedding, bar mitzvah. And Americans stock ice cream in their freezers as a staple. That is very unusual compared with other countries. Around the world, a huge amount of ice cream is sold in single-unit servings. 

Do you guys ever get sick of ice cream? I worked in an ice cream shop one summer when I was a teenager, and it put me off ice cream for a solid year.Greenfield: You were in the industry! You’ve been holding back on us! But no, I never had that. I tended to eat ice cream more recreationally than Ben. Ben was in charge of quality control, which meant eating a lot of ice cream. Once we started packaging ice cream into pints, Ben felt that he had to eat all the way to the bottom. Any ice cream flavor tastes good for the first couple of spoonfuls. The real test is how it tastes when you get down to the bottom. Cohen: Yeah, I was sick of it. But now that I’m no longer eating it because my job requires me to, I don’t get sick of it. I eat a reasonable amount. Every once in a while I go overboard. Greenfield: We both still eat a lot of ice cream.


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