Ben and Jerry’s Ice-Cream Impact and Justice

First of all we must out ourselves as probably the ones responsible for more than 50% of clicks on Ben and Jerry’s  SEAR page. Every time we talk to a new client and they ask us in bewilderment “What do you mean impact management strategy???” We say “hold our sparkly water”, type benjerry + SEAR, download, send. Ben and Jerry’s has never failed us, in delivering great data driven impact strategy and reports, nor frankly, in the cold and creamy goodness they produce. If you love Ben and Jerry’s, trust me, read their SEAR report, and you will only love them more. This is what the standard for a good company should be today: a good product, produced, advertised and delivered while ensuring the good in the world. 

Ben and Jerry’s is known as one of the most ethical and socially responsible companies in existence today. An interesting fact is that the first Mission Statement that added a Social Mission alongside the Product & Economic Missions and the resulting first SEAR report was published some ten years before the author of this blog was born. So quite a while ago…

The company defines a system perspective by weighting the costs to the firm compared to the cost to society. It is not such a small undertaking for a local ice cream company to launch a global initiative to save the world, gathering millions of community activists that are passionate and also consumer loyalists. The owners of Ben and Jerry’s company established an image of the brand as a multi – channel brand that redefined business ethics. Every aspect of Ben and Jerry’s operations has a goal to solve the larger issues, such as their concern for the environment, benefits for their employees or fair wage pay. They use their positions to influence changes in many areas such as voting rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, climate justice, etc. The company believes that business has a responsibility and also an opportunity to change the world. We couldn’t agree more. The fact that they did this before advertising impact was popular, or sure to secure customers, just goes to show the genuine impact management as compared to todays too often impactwashing. 

The CEO Mr. McCarthy emphasizes in his letter in the SEAR Report (2018): 

“The world is facing increasingly urgent challenges on many fronts – we at Ben & Jerry’s must raise our ambitions, double our efforts and amplify our positive impact around the world in new ways. Our mission of linked prosperity and driving for progressive social justice is needed now more than ever in all of the communities we serve globally”

And they mean (impact) business! 

We don’t want to give too much away as we want you to read their SEAR report but we do want to emphasize that when we apply our 5P impact analysis for enterprises (product, process, people, PR, profit) they have it all, form the supply chain to the packaging, energy efficiency and support in communities they serve. Their whole ecosystem of stakeholders is very involved, and the approach to philanthropy empowers employees to make decisions on progressive issues by serving inaction teams and employee committees. Ben and Jerry’s also believe that people who are affected by the problems are the best people to determine how to use the grants for solutions. They have an independent board of directors to expand and preserve their social mission. 

In this complex and often mis-represed world of ours, how can we tell the difference between impact-washing and true impact management? In our opinion, the quinfecta of enterprise social responsibility  includes: taking responsibility, data-based strategy, clearly defined methodology, transparency and outside evaluation. How did Ben and Jerrys achieve that?

  1. Ben and Jerry’s takes responsibility in a very real way: “Even though we have long championed racial equity through our activism, Ben & Jerry’s remains an overwhelmingly white company. At Ben & Jerry’s, we did more than bear witness to the events of 2020. Using our unique blend of internal initiatives and external activism, we responded by continuing to challenge existing power dynamics to advance justice for people who have been historically undermined and excluded. We are a vocal advocate and corporate leader for advancing racial justice. However, from a ‘walking the talk’ perspective, we are still a work in progress” (SEAR, 2020). 
  2. Ben and Jerry’s uses data to set targets and measure progress: “Starting with root cause analysis to uncover the deep underlying causes of racial inequity in our business, teams developed a set of sequenced strategies to address them, began to clarify desired outcomes and metrics to be used to measure progress, and identified the baseline data gaps that in some cases needed to be filled before setting targets” (SEAR, 2020)
  3. Ben and Jerry’s clearly define their impact methodology: “The year 2020 marked 25 years since Ben & Jerry’s established a methodology for calculating a livable wage benchmark for Vermont and committed to paying our workers a Livable Wage. We define this as the starting wage for a single person that will sustain a reasonable quality of life, taking into consideration the essential localized expenditures for housing, utilities, health care, transportation, food, recreation, savings, and tax. We adjust the figure annually, based in part on Cost-of-Living Adjustment data” (SEAR, 2020). 
  4. Ben and Jerry’s value and practice transparency: “We always want to know if we are still on the right track, so we sought feedback internally and externally from stakeholders representing Ben & Jerry’s functional departments, industry and supply chain partners, and non-governmental leaders on our Social Mission strategic priorities, impacts, and transparency.” (ibid).

First World (Impact) Problems

Being a senior impact leader in the community and the industry comes with its challenges. From high expectations to keeping the strategy and methodology relevant, being good at impact does not mean being perfect, as the company itself recognises. There are several impact issues that the company can, in our opinion, consider.

  1. Beneficiaries and/or customers?

In July, 2021 Ben and Jerry’s company announced that it was ending sales in the Israeli – occupied territories, believing it is inconsistent with their values for their products to be sold in the West Bank. Ben and Jerry’s is a brand that has always brought together a distinctly liberal population thus their consumers have criticized the company’s leadership for years for ignoring the Palestinian problem. 

Issue: With the expanding business and “sex sells” being more and more replaced by “values sell” many companies are rushing to make a stand and make it known. The most recent example was the companies standing up for Ukraine during the ongoing war. What we must ask ourselves is who are our decisions impacting? Our customers or the key stakeholders of the issue at hand. In this case is this decision going to be felt, in a positive way by Palestians in the West Bank or by the Western ice-cream consumers? It is very important to clearly distinguish between the two, to define the needs and the impact as well as our responsibility towards the stakeholders, customers and the general public.   

  1. Taking care of the (core) business?

Kim Kardashian and Elon Musk are just a few of the famous names that have been connected to taking the now infamous Ozenpic injections to lose weight. What is less known is that this drug, invented for diabetics, is used not just for weight loss but as prevention or treatment for obesity especially among children and youth. As the obesity epidemic is spreading to all corners of the Earth, recent studies project 2.7 overweight individuals by 2025, and the cost of treating health impacts of obesity annually to US$1.2 trillion globally. 

Issue: We often get asked if companies that produce oil, or cigarettes or sugary drinks can and should do impact strategy and implementation. As this is a very complex conversation best left for another blog, we would like to focus on impact strategy having to address the core business. In the case of Ben and Jerrys that core business is ice-cream and in the issue of sugar, responsible consumption and obesity are not issues that should be left out. By boldly taking on those issues as well, Ben and Jerry’s would not only show once again that they understand and take responsibility for all their impact but could lead in their and related industries!

This blog was written by Tina Jelić as she interned in Impact House as a part of her applied sociology class. She was mentored in her work and blog by Tamara Puhovski, Impact House CEO, who also served as the co-writer and editor for the blog. 

Tamara Puhovski would like to transparently state even though Impact House does not (yet!) receive payment in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream that she has personally, responsibly eaten two pints of cookie dough Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in support of the cause while co-writing and editing this blog. Parts of the blog might have been written under a serious sugar rush.