responsible company

One of my most vivid memories of the dozens of Social Venture Network (SVN) conferences I’ve attended over the years was seeing Ben Cohen walking into the dining hall in 2000, in tears over the sale of Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever. I went over to hug him — that’s the sort of thing you do at SVN conferences — and as he sobbed I said something stupid like “Look at it this way, Ben. You walked away with a s**tload of money.” ($41 million, actually.) Ben was not consoled.

As I recall, I first saw Ben Cohen sitting in a circle at an SVN conference in 1991. (Anita Roddick was sitting next to me, literally bouncing up and down, impatient to speak.) Not to put too fine an edge on it, I was star-struck. We didn’t speak then, but within short order I found opportunities to ask Ben about some of the innovations he’d introduced to Ben & Jerry’s to advance social justice. I learned a great deal from him, with profound results for my company when I later put those lessons into action.


Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s by Brad Edmondson @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


In the ensuing years — SVN’s four-day conferences were held twice annually — I got to know Ben as a person rather than a star. He invited me to join him on the board of his organization, One Percent for Peace, and I became engaged in the negotiations to merge that small venture into Business for Social Responsibility, of which we’d both been co-founders in 1992 (along with a cast of dozens). At one point, believe it or not, this marketing genius even hired me to do some marketing work for his company’s huge nationwide campaign in support of the Children’s Defense Fund. Much later, I felt comfortable enough with Ben that I was able to talk him into putting his name as my coauthor on a book I was writing for SVN, published in 2006 as Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun.

Despite this unusual degree of access to Ben, and strong relationships with a number of mutual friends, I wasn’t aware of what had really happened in the tumultuous days leading up to the sale of the company, much less in the thirteen years that followed. None of the several books I’d read about Ben & Jerry’s had helped at all. Now I believe I know . . . well, a lot, though certainly not everything, thanks to Brad Edmondson’s excellent new book, Ice Cream Social. Edmondson’s subtitle, The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s, is right on target, melodramatic though it may seem at first glance.

Much of the author’s information and contacts came from Jeff Furman, who, little known outside, was effectively Ben and Jerry’s third partner in founding the company. In fact, factoring in both Ben’s and Jerry’s long absences  — Jerry through several years in the 1980s, and both of them through most of the 2000s — Jeff is in all likelihood the only person (at least at a senior level) who has stayed with Ben & Jerry’s throughout its history. A board member for many years now, he has served as chair since 2010. Jeff is fiercely dedicated to social and economic justice — and a nice guy to boot.

Ice Cream Social details Ben, Jeff, and Jerry’s halting journey through the 1980s toward shaping the three-part mission that the company has been known for since 1988: making the best ice cream in the world; supporting causes that promote economic, social, and environmental change; and taking into account all the company’s stakeholders when making business decisions. Ben publicly called this the “double bottom line.” Within the company, and in Ice Cream Social, the concept is termed “shared prosperity.”

For a quarter-century, Ben & Jerry’s has been an icon of socially responsible business — a movement that the company was a leading factor in creating — but through much of the decade following its sale in 2000 the company fell far short of its exemplary performance in the last century. Clueless executives placed in charge by Unilever progressively whittled away at all three pillars of the mission, deliberately lowering product quality, getting in the way of the social mission, and shoveling economic benefits toward the outsiders brought in as executives. Ice Cream Social is most compelling when telling the story of how Jeff Furman and his allies on the company’s board started fighting back against Unilever in 2007.

Aggressively holding the parent company to the precise terms of the extraordinary sales agreement Ben and his colleagues had negotiated, and holding the threat of a major lawsuit over their heads, the Ben & Jerry’s board ultimately succeeded in winning over Unilever’s top management — and, in the process, embedding some aspects of its uniquely progressive mission into the priorities of a $68 billion global conglomerate, the world’s third largest food company (after Nestle and Pepsico). Today, Ben & Jerry’s is once again a sparkling example of how a company under brilliant and visionary management can realize big profits not despite an aggressive social and environmental mission but because of it.

Though every company is unique, and the Ben & Jerry’s story is far more unusual than most, there are lessons to be learned from the company’s experience.

For starters, the differences in perspective between social entrepreneurs like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield on the one hand and top executives at most large public corporations are profound. They can’t be bridged simply by briefings, educational sessions, or show-and-tell exercises. The differences lie on the level of values. B Corporations like Ben & Jerry’s express the personal values of their founders. Most big companies are still mired in the narrow-minded focus of Wall Street on short-term financial performance.

The hard bargaining between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, and the rocky relationship between the two companies after the sale, makes clear that good intentions are far from enough to preserve the unique character of a socially responsible company. The extraordinary sales agreement — a year and a half in the making — contained tough, enforceable provisions that made it a legal requirement for Unilever to operate Ben & Jerry’s in a manner that would maintain its unique and quirky character. Even so, the company was nearly driven into the ground over its first seven years as a subsidiary of Unilever, and it took extraordinary courage and disciplined action by Jeff Furman and others on the Ben & Jerry’s board to confront the reality and hold Unilever’s feet to the fire: genuine corporate responsibility doesn’t come easily in a classical corporate environment.

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