Is it possible that two hippies making hand-cranked ice cream in the back of a former gas station can influence a $60 billion global conglomerate – maybe even the entire corporate world?
I can remember being shocked back in April 2000 when it was announced that Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. had agreed to be acquired by Unilever. I recall being sad and disappointed because, as editor of Dairy Foods magazine, I had watched the company evolve from a quirky, hippie-run upstart to a quirky force to be reckoned with in the growing superpremium ice cream market.
This all comes to mind because of a BBC News story in May, "Did Ben & Jerry's change Unilever?" It's an interesting question not adequately fleshed out in the too-brief story, but it's an OK read all the same (www.bbc.com.uk/nwes-business-18167345).And, to be fair, it's what got me thinking about origins of sustainability and corporate responsibility, two things we seem to write a lot about.
At $237 million in sales back in 2000, Ben & Jerry's was at a crossroads. Too big to be making ice cream anymore in the back of a dilapidated gas station in Burlington, Vt. (which it had abandoned in 1982), but too small to reliably sustain its growing number of employees, much less its ambitions for social change. I did notice some clues. The company had recently hired its first "professional" CEO, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, and had gone public in a characteristically quirky Vermont-only public offering of stock 16 years earlier. Now it was listed on NASDAQ and, although Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield still held a controlling interest, either the time was right or it was only a matter of time.
"Neither of us could have anticipated, 20 years ago, that a major multinational would some day sign on, enthusiastically, to pursue and expand the social mission that continues to be an essential part of Ben & Jerry's and a driving force behind our many successes. But today, Unilever has done just that," Cohen and Greenfield said in announcing the deal. "While we and others certainly would have preferred to pursue our mission as an independent enterprise, we hope that, as part of Unilever, Ben & Jerry's will continue to expand its role in society."
And it has. Maybe in ways much larger than Ben and Jerry ever imagined.
I met Cohen and Greenfield at the old Food Marketing Institute shows, when every major food or beverage company would fill the halls of McCormick Place and show off their new products to the grocer attendees. They were real guys, not made-up words like Haagen-Dazs or Frusen Gladje (another remember that one?). They gave me a T-shirt, which (embarrassingly) I still have.
They railed about artificial bovine growth hormone; were the first U.S. ice cream company to use environmentally friendly unbleached paperboard and other Earth-friendly innovations; promoted using 1 percent of the government's national defense budget to fund peace-promoting projects. Even when sales were still under $10 million, they pledged 7.5 percent of the company's annual pre-tax profits to their own foundation to fund community-oriented projects.
Ben and Jerry and their next-state neighbor, Gary Hirshberg of yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, were talking crazy talk, that it was the responsibility of manufacturing companies to save the Earth. Only a few enlightened souls listened at first, but support got bigger as the evidence got scarier.
That was a decade or three ago. Now, nearly every corporation large and small publishes an annual corporate social responsibility report.
I give Unilever credit, too. The big conglomerate has kept its promise not to dilute or underfund Ben & Jerry's social mission. Unilever itself has an entire web page devoted to "sustainable living," with a complex navigation bar leading to volumes of reports on subjects including improving nutrition, greenhouse gases and water use. Who cared about such things 30 years ago? Ben and Jerry did, along with a few enlightened others.
Would Unilever have that web page without having acquired Ben & Jerry's 12 years ago? Would sustainability be the buzzword that it is? Would corporations in America and around the world be as socially responsible today without those two hippies?