Some guilty pleasures just don’t warrant any guilt at all.
By this point, I’m used to scanning the freezer at the supermarket and immediately sighing at Ben & Jerry’s latest pun-filled flavor name and all the ice cream goodness I know to be inside each container. Luckily, it looks like that’s a routine worth repeating.
I’ve been vaguely aware for a while that Ben & Jerry’s is part of the “businesses that do good” cohort. It turns out that it was actually the first wholly-owned company to receive B Corp certification; the company’s socially responsible reputation rests soundly on its strong benefits and living wages for employees, charitable giving record, robust community service program, and environmentally responsible packaging and production.
But to be honest, though that’s a very worthy list of socially responsible measures, hearing about all the policies companies have put in place can sometimes start to feel like a wash. (I think this is of course a good sign—people just plain expect companies to do the right thing these days. It’s an interesting consequence of this shift that it’s hard to say that many of these policies really stand out to me anymore.)
But now, Ben & Jerry’s is taking a stand on something timely and specific that I care about by participating in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
#BlackLivesMatter is the current, critical campaign to address racism and injustice in this country in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner shootings and in response to our ongoing history of violence against blacks.
This month, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (yep, the “Ben and Jerry” who founded the company) wore “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” t-shirts when they attended an annual meeting of franchise owners. During the meeting, they urged the owners of shops that sell Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to sell “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” T-shirts alongside their euphoric ice cream treats.
The Root reported on the best part of the story, Ben Cohen’s quote about why they’re making this statement:
“Some people might say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’” Cohen said to franchise owners. “‘We can’t sell those T-shirts in our shops; it’s controversial.’ But isn’t that exactly the point? If it weren’t controversial, we wouldn’t need to do it. At some point we have to ask ourselves: ‘What do we stand for? Whose side are you on?’”
Cohen’s question is a great one. This effort stands out to me for the plain fact that it stands out.
I love that Ben and Jerry are adding momentum to an existing campaign. They’re using their influence and business to support a movement that’s already out in the world, as opposed to building a campaign within Ben & Jerry’s that is primarily a brand-builder and only secondarily a chance to drive impact. Many in-house campaigns are still awesome opportunities for companies to demonstrate their values and make progress on issues. But it’s so important for people, companies, and organizations to recognize what’s already working, and then put the cause first instead of their own branding efforts.
We’ve now comfortably been living in the age of social entrepreneurship for a few years, and I think it’s clear that businesses are more than the products and services that they exchange. There’s a whole culture of business—and in America, we’re used to venerating it—so it matters that businesses create leaders who say things that are relevant to daily life.
Ben and Jerry sold their company to Unilever in 2000. (They are both still active in the company’s operations, hence their attendance at the franchises meeting.) They are no longer the executives making the major business decisions about the company, and yet they realize that Ben & Jerry’s has given them a platform to talk about today’s toughest issues.
I’m happy to buy products that support a company with founders that have used business as an opportunity to become leaders on a larger scale.
I’m also happy to support a company with leaders that don’t just think their responsibility is to create a more eco-friendly or fairly traded product, but know that any opportunity to use power to combat racism and justice is one worth taking.
Eating ice cream isn’t activism. But by continuing to support companies that produce outspoken, passionate leaders, we’ll have more opportunities to see what activism looks like and take the right kind of cues.
Katy Gathright is the Communications Manager at Groundswell. She’s a D.C. area native, Williams College alum, and co-founder of Designed Good, an online marketplace for socially responsible products. She’s also the one constantly listening to pop culture podcasts and trying to turn them into article topics.