I’d venture a guess that just about everyone in America has heard of Ben and Jerry’s, the popular brand of ice cream that’s been synonymous with quality and home made branding since the 1980s. And if you’ve ever looked through the supermarket cooler for a pint of their ice cream and seen flavors like Half Baked and Cherry Garcia, not to mention the likeness of the two shaggy founders and friends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, you probably aren’t surprised that they exercised a pro-marijuana message recently. In an interview in the HuffPost Live last week, Cohen and Greenfield alluded to the fact that they’d be open to a marijuana or cannabis-infused ice cream one day, when it becomes perfectly legal to do so.
“Ben and I have had previous experiences with substances,” said Jerry. “And I think legalizing marijuana is a wonderful thing. It’s not my decision. If it were my decision, I’d be doing it, but fortunately we have wiser heads at the company that figure those things out.”
“Makes sense to me,” added Ben. “Combine your pleasures.”
The media took the possibility of a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream that gets you high as you eat dessert and ran with it, using the sound bites as a quick teaser on the nightly news and on plenty of websites. The tenor of their coverage could be characterized as playful and entertaining, but none of them dug deeper into the story of Ben and Jerry’s and why they’d be the perfect candidate – or not – to bring such a product to shelves.
I hate to disappoint but Cohen and Greenfield don’t own the company with their own name and image on the label anymore. In fact, after years of Board mismanagement, they were forced to sell to Unilever, Inc. in 2000. The deal was for a reported $326 million but sadly, Cohen and especially Greenfield received far less than you’d expect. So Ben and Jerry could float the possibility of a marijuana-infused ice cream, but it’s not their call anymore.
“If it were my decision, I’d be doing it,” Greenfield also told HuffPost Live. “But fortunately, we have wiser heads at the company that figure those things out.”
And what does Unilever/Ben and Jerry’s Inc. have to say? A spokeswoman for Ben and told AdWeek magazine: “Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t given serious consideration to the possibility of cannabis-infused ice cream. Perhaps it’s high time.”
Of course we can add that statement, and especially the tired pun, up to noncommittal folly from the company in an attempt to keep their name in the headlines a few days longer and garner some great free PR.
But the deeper current is to look at what Ben and Jerry, the men, stood for when they founded Ben and Jerry’s, the company, in the late 1970s. Considered vanguards in integrating social missions and societal ethics in corporate for-profit business, they did some amazing things in the two decades they were at the helm.
The overriding value statement at Ben and Jerry’s was based on a simple three-part mission:
- Make the world’s best ice cream.
- Support progressive causes.
- Share the company’s success with all stakeholders: employees, suppliers, distributors and customers.
This mission wasn’t just hot air to be framed and hung on the wall in the break room, it became the ethos of the whole company and dictated almost every business decision as the company grew organically until it was one of the most successful grassroots brands of all time.
Along the way, Cohen and Greenfield proved to be anything but doughy middle-aged tree-huggers who got lucky peddling dessert. The social impact of how they ran their company – and most importantly, how they treated everyone from the wealthiest stockholder to the most humble janitor – pushed norms and set a high bar for other companies to live up to, even today.
They made sure to pay everyone in their operation, including vendors and suppliers, a living wage. For no other reason than to hold themselves accountable for their mission, they held annual audits and reviewed their social and environmental performance. They joined forces with some great non-profit organizations to make sure the ripples of their work were more far-reaching than just selling ice cream, orgs that focused on job training for lower income and at-risk youth, among others. Their goal was to set up five of these PartnerShops a year.
The process of cutting a trail where none existed wasn’t always easy and success wasn’t linear. There were stumbles, constant readjustments, and a few outright failures. But In 1999, shortly before they sold their company, a national survey found people ranked Ben and Jerry’s fifth on the long list of companies with the best reputations. They were surpassed only by Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel, long-time mega brands that spent more on public relations every year than Ben and Jerry’s made in total profits, it was pointed out.
But their warm-and-fuzzy reputation was not a product of expensive public relations, nor was it an accident. The public knew that Ben and Jerry’s cared, stood for something far more important than profit, and always tried to do the right thing, even at the sacrifice of profits in some cases. For instance, they spent a ton of money changing over from the paper packaging everyone used at the time, which contained elemental chlorine bleach that was harmful to the environment, and changed it to “eco-pints” that were chlorine free. They made sure the dairy farms they were using followed the most stringent agricultural standards, even joining up with Cornell University and the University of Vermont to devise a system of best environmental practices, practically inventing the term “sustainable agriculture.”
Their commitment to environmental causes earned them accolades unprecedented for owners of a multi-million dollar companies, so much that Cohen was invited, and served, on the board of Greenpeace.
To sum it up, in 1999 during the last social audit the company conducted under founder Ben and Jerry’s reign, auditor James Heard wrote this:
“The company’s values are reflected in matters small and large … Social mission objectives are part of every manager’s job, from the chief executive officer on down, and these objectives have also been incorporated into the company’s strategic and operating plans … While the company may sometimes have fallen short in achieving its social mission goals, it demonstrates a commitment to progressive values that few companies can match.”
So now, when you read quick blurbs introducing the idea of marijuana-infused Ben and Jerry’s, you’ll understand their precedence of social advocacy and progressive business practices, consistent with the legalization of marijuana in this country – not just ice cream that will make you feel good.