Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream company, is
sitting in the lounge of a large chain hotel near London's Gloucester Road.
Aside, perhaps, from a Häagen-Dazs shop, it is hard to imagine a less
appropriate setting. For those unfamiliar with the area, it is a soulless
stretch of west London, dominated by traffic-clogged roads and slightly seedy
mansion blocks. The hotel is decorated in a cheap, bland, "international" style,
with sub-Monet prints on the walls and white bread rolls pre-laid on its lunch
It is, in other words, the antithesis of the quirky, homespun brand that
Greenfield represents. Neither is it a place for a wealthy businessman, which he
also represents. Greenfield, however, does not seem to mind. He is calm and
agreeable. When I point out a dead fly in his coffee, he chuckles. Perhaps he
has more important issues on his mind. He has just stepped off a flight from
Greenland, where he spent a few days with explorer Marc Corneilissen. What was
it like? "Very cold, sparsely populated - and melting."
This trip is part of Ben & Jerry's "Lick Global Warming" campaign. Last
month, in protest against the US government's proposed drilling for oil in the
Arctic National Wildlife Park, the company made a 1,000lb Baked Alaska and left
it to melt outside the Capitol. "It is such an overwhelming issue and although
there is awareness not nearly enough is being done about it." To this end, the
company has set up a Climate Change College, which, each year for three years,
will train six spokespeople for the cause. "The leaders of tomorrow," Greenfield
says. "They will be taking over from me very soon."
Greenfield, 54, looks like he has a few years left in him yet. He is cuddly,
but not nearly as fat as someone who has spent 27 years surrounded by ice cream
should be. "I try not to eat it every day," he says. Each employee in the
company gets three free pints a day. Are they fat? "No. I think when people
first come in, they consume a lot, and then it tapers off. They give it to their
friends and family. It has become a major source of barter in the Vermont
The image of happy New Englanders leaning over their picket fences to
exchange tubs of Phish Food is one the company has been keen to encourage since
starting out in an abandoned petrol station in 1978. "It was built on the
foundation that business has a responsibility to give back to the community,"
The Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield story has become folklore in business
circles; the two young hippies who took a $5 correspondence course in ice cream
making and ended up with a multimillion-dollar business. "The idea was to do
something that was going to be fun, where we could be our own bosses,"
Greenfield explains. After "pretty much failing at everything else", Greenfield
was rejected by medical school, "we thought we'd do something with food, because
we liked to eat. We thought we would do food that was catching on in the cities
but hadn't been brought to these rural college towns yet. And in the late 1970s
the things that were catching on were homemade ice cream and bagels." Used
bagel-making equipment was too expensive, so ice cream it was.
"We had grown up in the 1960s, and it was going to be 'ice cream for the
people' - real high-quality ice cream at an affordable price," Greenfield adds.
"But pretty soon, we were just interested in surviving." It took about five
years for the company to go into profit. Once secure, they developed their
social mission: to "actively recognise the central role business plays in
society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally,
nationally and internationally."
To that end, they set up the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which gave 7.5 per
cent of pre-tax profits to charity; the highest amount of any privately held
company. They published all their audits and set up a five to one salary ratio,
where no one in the company earned more than five times the lowest paid scooper.
In the workplace, Greenfield established the "Joy Gang", which distributed
"wacky" prizes like cans of Spam and celebrated Barry Manilow's birthday. The
scoopers were encouraged to wear jester hats.
Poor staff. The ice cream, however, became a hit. They set up their first
franchise in 1981; by 1985 they were big enough to threaten Häagen-Dazs and by
1988 there were more than 80 Ben & Jerry's "scoop shops" across the
"As we began to prosper, we became more aware of the power of business,"
Greenfield says. "In the US, business has become the most powerful force in the
country. Most businesses try to appear neutral but, in reality, are always
taking political positions - lobbying to have fewer environmental regulations,
to not raise the minimum wage. We didn't have a blueprint, it was a lot of trial
and error. A lot of error."
He gives an example. "One of Ben's greatest ideas was when we were going to
enter the market of New York City. He was riding the subway, and it was dirty
and depressing, and so he thought - why not take the money we would spend on
advertising and fix up a subway station? It will provide a service and people
will find out about the ice cream. So he went through the incredibly complicated
bureaucracy of NYC, going so far as learning how to remove chewing gum from the
platforms. But we never got permission to do it.
"A lucky thing is that Ben doesn't mind failing," he continues. "Ben is this
very creative, entrepreneurial person, who loves to try new things and doesn't
mind making mistakes. He is the one who will create new flavours, do the
marketing. I'm the one who is more comfortable with what Ben calls 'having a
manageable agenda', so I would be in charge of ice cream production. We had
complementary skills but similar values. But neither of us had any interest in
finance - for a long time we kept no track of what was going on. It caused a few
In 1985 their sales showed an increase of 143 per cent from the year before;
by 1989 that had fallen to 23 per cent, and in 1995 4.4 per cent. The same year
they appointed a new chief executive; going about it, of course, in a Ben &
Jerry's kind of way. They announced a contest called "YO! I'm Your CEO!", where
the public were encouraged to apply for the job, in 100 words. In the end,
however, the winning candidate, Robert Holland, formerly of management
consultants McKinsey, came from a more traditional background. The five to one
salary ratio changed to seven to one, and then, in 1998, to 16-1.
This was all fuel for critics of the company, who claimed Cohen and
Greenfield were just peddling social conscience to gullible yuppies. And, of
course, lefty businessmen are as easy a target as, well, a 1,000lb baked Alaska.
Republican senator Ted Stevens said of that recent incident: "I suggest they use
a horse and treadmill to run their ice cream machines if they are really
concerned about decreasing our nation's dependence on fossil fuels."
Does Greenfield feel that by trying to be socially responsible they get more
flak than companies who make no effort? "I think you get looked at more
closely," he says, "but I think that is good. Throughout the years, we have got
a lot of praise, and a lot of criticism, and I think when the company got
praised it was more than we deserved, and when we got criticised it was more
than we deserved. We make our fair share of mistakes, and that is because we are
trying new things, and that's good.'
And what about the money? "I get the impression in business that for a lot of
people money is a way of keeping score. It reaches the point when you can't
really spend it all. I have a pretty modest lifestyle and I think I have more
money than I need, and I am not really motivated to get more. What we learnt was
that money by itself is how you measure success, but when you combine it with
mission, that is the power. That's the highest form that business can take."
In 2000 they decided to sell for $326m to Unilever which, they say, supports
their guiding principles. Besides, maintains Greenfield, it is in Unilever's
interest to do so. "I want to get past the idea that if you are a caring
company, that has to cost you money," says Greenfield. "Our experience has been
totally the opposite. The more community-involved and environmentally concerned
our company has been, the more financially successful. If you spend your
marketing dollars getting involved in a community campaign, or set up a
foundation and give money to non-profits, or source ingredients in an unusual
way, there will be a time when people become aware of what the company is for,
and they will want to support that. It's a longer term way of making a
connection with customers but it's a genuine connection.'
He gives the example of their annual Free Cone day. "Don't you think,
ultimately, it is good for an ice cream company to give away free ice
It is time for photographs; Greenfield gamely plunges a spoon into a pot of
ice cream. The following day is the launch of the Climate Change College.
Assorted media, representatives from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenfield's wife
of 30 years Elizabeth, and son Tyrone watch footage of polar bears who,
presumably, don't really mind that the people trying to save their habitat are
wearing Ben & Jerry's T-shirts.
If the choice is between sharing a sundae with Greenfield or, say, Senator
Ted Stevens, I know which one I'd choose. Even if it means wearing a jester
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.