The TH Interview: Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's

Between their Climate College, "global cooling" efforts and PETA's calls for them to use breast milk in their ice cream (say what!?), Ben & Jerry's have managed to stay several steps ahead of the game for years.

Last week, we caught up with Ben & Jerry's cofounder Jerry Greenfield at Maala's 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Conference at the Tel Aviv Hilton, where he gave a lecture about his (& Ben's) fascinating journey into the world of responsible, and sustainable, entrepreneurship. Here's what he had to say...TreeHugger: Jerry, you just gave a speech to an audience of Israeli CEO's and investment bankers about the Ben & Jerry's model of social responsibility, which I would guess is quite a bit more radical than anything anybody else in the room is doing right now. How receptive do you think they were?

Jerry Greenfield: What I talk about at these kinds of events is based on our experience. I think sometimes people feel like Ben and I are trying to, well, pontificate is too strong a word, but direct people that business should be a certain way. What we are doing is sharing our experience of running a business in a non-traditional way. So usually I try to tell some humorous stories about how we started, how we didn't have any training and we're not your usual business people. We tried to run a business the way a person on the street would, at the beginning.

Most people in the US view corporations as selfish entities, and we didn't want to have that kind of business, so we said we're going to see if we can be different. So we try to let people know that you don't have to do it the traditional way; you can do it differently - it's possible. The tradition thinking is that environmental and social responsibility takes away from profitability, but our experience is the exact opposite. There are many people in the business world that would like to do that, but don't know how.

I think it will become a competitive advantage, because that's what consumers respond to. So often people are buying products and services and that they don't really like, but they feel like they don't have any alternative.

TreeHugger: In your speech to the conference you said, "Business is the most powerful force in our society today Business has incredible power and influence over our society, all of which [it uses] in the narrow interest of business, which is to make money We would not tolerate that from any other major entity in society, but it's okay for business." How do you think that went over with the crowd?

JG: I think businesspeople know how powerful business is, particularly big corporations. Business is very involved in trying to influence policy, such as lobbying against all sorts of regulations or against raising the minimum wage. All of this is done to promote business' narrow interests, and it's done behind the scenes — because it would be very unpopular if people knew about this stuff, and businesses want people to like them, which is why they spend so much money on advertising and marketing, to try to get consumers to feel good about the stuff they are buying.

Ben & Jerry's takes a different approach. We try to do good deeds and act in the consumer's interests. I don't think the whole world is going to start acting that way overnight, but there are tangible benefits of doing it. For example, people that work for the company feel better about what they are doing, employees feel more motivated.


"If It's Not Fun, Why Do It?" Jerry Greenfield at Maala's 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Conference.
TreeHugger: After your speech, the CEO of one of the big cellular companies gave a presentation about the charity work that his company does, including donating to kids who are fighting cancer. He neglected to mention that his company's cell phones and antennas are seen by many in Israel as a major cause of cancer! What will convince corporate managers to start moving the core of their business activity toward sustainability and social responsibility, instead of continuing along more or less the same path while covering it up with donations and greenwash?

JG: It's really an interesting question — the core of your business versus these things on the side. I don't quite know where to start. What we essentially figured out was that normally in business you think about cost, quality, time of delivery, things like that. We added another factor — responsibility for social and environmental impacts — as another fundamental thing, alongside price and quality.

Managers are trained to think in terms of these things, and when you add another factor, it adds another layer of complexity, which managers don't like. Plus they may not even believe in these environmental and socially responsible things in the first place! So you may be asking people to do things they don't believe in, and which they think just makes their job harder. Unless you have people in the company who believe in these things, its' going to seem like a burden.

So I think it needs to come from the top. As important as it is to have these ideas bubbling up from [workers and consumers], the person at the top has to make the decisions. That person is looking at the welfare of the company, hopefully not just in the short term, but in the long term as well.

You know, when Ben and I started doing this like 20 years ago, these ideas were considered very fringe. Nowadays they are quite mainstream. That's the way it happens. The companies that start things like this are the smaller, innovative, entrepreneurial companies. The big conglomerates are not leaders on this; they come on board after it's been shown to work. That's the nature of their role. They are behemoths who are good at making something bigger once it has already developed.

Sometimes people say to me, what do think about businesses who are doing good things, but only because they think it's good for business. I say whatever makes businesses be more positive is wonderful. If they are just going through the motions, and good things are coming out of it, that's okay.

TreeHugger: But at the pace these things are happening, are we really going to prevent the big ecological crises that people are predicting?

JG: The difficult thing with something like global warming is that a lot of times humans don't respond until there is an emergency, and you cannot always see the real impacts of things until you are past the tipping point.

I'm not convinced that we can't make dramatic changes quickly enough to dent those huge impacts. Carbon in the atmosphere — people say it's beyond repair, that it's too late. I haven't really bought in to that line of thinking yet. I think you do the best you can, try your absolute hardest, and if you are successful - good. And if not, at least you tried.


"I've got 4 flavors here!" Jerry hawks his wares to conference participants.

I think real change is hard for any institution, it has to do with the nature of institutions. At Ben & Jerry's, the biggest things for us in making our company more sustainable were the ingredients, the packaging, and, being a somewhat energy-intensive business, the freezing and transport of the product. That was the change that we made at the core of our business, the fundamental stuff. We committed to reducing our energy footprint per pint. You make a commitment and then you just make it happen.

I think that's part of the answer to your questions — the issue of measuring success.

Companies are really good at things they can measure. That's a good way for companies to address sustainability issues: first commit, and then start measuring. You don't know where to start until you take an inventory of your baseline.

TreeHugger: Do all Ben & Jerry's franchises share your business philosophy?

JG: Absolutely. It doesn't work if you have people throughout the company that don't believe in it. We have a mission statement, which deals with our product mission, economic mission and social mission. All three are equally important. We wrote it back in the 80's and there was this discussion about how to not put one of top of the other, so we ended up writing them horizontally.

The hard part comes when you achieve your financial mission for the year, but not your social mission. Is that a successful year? For it to work, the person at the top has to take these missions with equal seriousness.

You know, when we were coming up with this, it was not easy to convince the managers. Some thought it was great, some thought it was lousy. The question even came up: Does someone have to believe in the company's social mission to be hired by the company? Isn't that un-American, or even illegal?

The conclusion that we came to was that people can believe anything they want, but when they are at work, they have to be working to achieve the social mission no less than they are working to make a profit for the company. It's part of their job. One thing that is different today is that it is completely accepted that this is the mission of the company.

TreeHugger: How did Unilever's takeover of the company affect these things?

JG: Unilever has surprised me at how much they have allowed the social mission to continue. I don't think they know how to do it themselves, but the current CEO, Walt Freese, has been there a few years, and he's great. He believes in the mission, and he's doing everything he can to make it central to the company.

Here's an example. A year or two ago, the CEO decides he wants to come out with a flavor called "American Pie." On the lid would be a pie chart showing the US federal budget. Military spending would be about 50%, and the rest would be all these little slices like environment, jobs, health care, whatever. And then on the packaging, there would be some information about how some of the military budget goes to Cold War weapons systems that are no longer needed, like the 10,000 nuclear bombs in the US arsenal. Now anyone would agree that 10,000 nuclear bombs is more than you would ever logically need. What happens after you drop 5? The country spends around $20 billion maintaining this nuclear arsenal. The packaging would ask if this is so wise — maybe it would be better to spend that money on children?

So Walt Freese goes to talk to his bosses at Unilever about this. I wasn't there, but at some point he talks to his boss, who talks to his bosses. They talk to the lawyers, and in the end they decide that it's okay. And "American Pie" came out talking about nuclear bombs on its packaging.

TreeHugger: What advice can you offer people who are thinking about opening environmentally and socially responsible, sustainable enterprises?

JG: I think the key concept is sustainability. That's a word that is thrown about a lot these days, but human activities are not always thought about in terms of "is this sustainable over time?" I think we're now reaching a point where this is THE question that is going to be asked about businesses. Global warming, whether you believe in it or not, has brought the issue of sustainability to the forefront.

The interesting thing about doing business in this other kind of way — a community-based business or an environmentally forward-looking company — is that you still have to do all the other business stuff well. Just because you are based on certain values, that does not mean you don't need a great product, good marketing, distribution and so on. Nobody is going to buy Ben & Jerry's if they don't like the product.

Photos by Daniel Cherrin. Special thanks to Yair Engel, who also participated in this interview.

Tags: Consumerism | Corporate Responsibility | Fair Trade | Food Miles | TH Interview

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK