Ziemann: Ben & Jerry’s screams for ice cream – and social justice

Columnist Megan Ziemann describes corporate social responsibility through the lens of ice cream magnate Ben & Jerry’s.

Megan Ziemann

This summer, we’ve been active. We’ve been protesting, sharing links, donating money and amplifying marginalized voices with the hope our small efforts will make a large difference. We know what we can do individually, but that’s not enough.

In a capitalist society, change has to come from corporations as well. And while that may seem impossible at face value, a growing trend in business is here to prove our initial thoughts wrong.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a business model that requires a company to keep itself accountable with regard to itself, its stakeholders and the environment. A company that uses CSR does not operate solely for profit. Instead, it recognizes its impact in the community and aims to meet a “triple bottom line” (i.e. improving the lives of its employees and customers as well as bettering the environment). 

Companies who use CSR are growing. They have the respect of their community. They make sure their operations are sustainable. They keep ethics at the core of their business.

Because CSR works.

In my opinion, CSR is best explained through example. And if I can make ice cream an example, I’m going to do it. 

Ben & Jerry’s was founded in 1978 in Vermont by the appropriately named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. According to their website (and the aisles of my local grocery store), they offer classic ice cream flavors like chocolate, coffee and cookie dough as well as more intense mixes — my personal favorites. In addition to regular ice cream, the company features frozen yogurt and nondairy lines of unique flavors. 

The company isn’t only about ice cream, however. Founders Cohen and Greenfield are committed to social and environmental justice and work with nonprofits like the NAACP and Greenpeace in their own unique way — by releasing themed ice cream flavors that donate to important causes like racial and environmental justice. 

Cohen and Greenfield sold the company to Unilever in 2000, but current CEO Matthew McCarthy shares the same drive as the founders and pledges to continue their forward-thinking ideology.

My first memory of Ben & Jerry’s CSR efforts was in middle school. While researching for a social studies project about the Amazon rainforest, I stumbled across ‘Rainforest Crunch,’ an ice cream flavor first put on shelves in 1988 that brought attention and money to saving the Amazon rainforest. 

Since 1988, Ben & Jerry’s has released a large number of social and environmental justice-focused ice creams. ‘Save Our Swirled’ in 2015 urged customers to join the Global Climate Movement to combat climate change. ‘Home Sweet Honeycomb’ in 2017 raised money and community support for the International Rescue Committee, bringing attention to the plight of refugees all over the world. Most recently, ‘Justice ReMix’d‘ supports the Advancement Project National Office and is dedicated to criminal justice reform, especially for Black individuals. 

This year, Cohen and Greenfield found themselves in headlines once again, two decades after they stepped away from the company. On June 2, the company issued a statement over Twitter and on their website in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The statement included four demands with a push to Congress to pass H.R. 40, a bill dedicated to studying and understanding the years of systemic racism Black folk have experienced in the United States. 

Ben & Jerry’s gives me hope it is possible to change the system within the confines of capitalism. This company is proof corporations and social justice can mix, albeit with a little difficulty. Large corporations like Unilever were never made to support social and environmental justice. 

The existence and success of Ben & Jerry’s should show us it is possible, and more companies should step up.

On the topic of success, as of 2019, Ben & Jerry’s is the top-selling ice cream brand in the United States with roughly $681 million in sales, $100 million more than the next top seller. Even after its sale to industry giant Unilever, sales growth continued and advocacy growth followed suit, according to Christopher Marquis, professor at Cornell University and author of “Better Business,” a book on reforming capitalism through B Corporations. 

CSR does not hurt a company. In fact, it does the opposite. Companies that value customers as more than just a source of revenue do better in the long run. 

The customer is the most important thing to a company, whether they use CSR or not. That’s us. We as customers have the power to impact corporations by developing wise purchasing choices. The next time you need clothing, technology or even ice cream — evaluate where you’re putting your money. 

Voting with your dollar is real. What we buy can change the world.

But don’t take it from me. Head over to your local frozen food section and taste it for yourself.