The U.S. ice cream company Ben & Jerry's has opened its first store in Japan. Founded by two childhood friends in 1978 and now worth $300 million (23.62 billion yen), Ben & Jerry's tries to contribute to society through the vehicle of ice cream. Though sometimes the target of strong criticism, the company is determined to stick to its own way of doing things and have fun while doing so.
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I originally met Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry's, in junior high school. Our careers after that were marked by failure, with Ben dropping out of university and me failing to get into medical school. In 1978, when we were 27, we opened a small ice cream parlor in this old gas station in our hometown of Burlington, Vt. Through a process of trial and error we finally managed to get a reputation for delicious ice cream and our business grew from there.
We are both from the hippy generation, so we were originally not that interested in making money. We believed we could use our business to give back to the community that had supported us.
In 1985 we set up a foundation to contribute to social change and we also built an ice cream plant that was designed to minimize environmental pollution. In 1987 we began donating leftover ingredients from ice cream production to farmers to use as pig feed. Our business reports from 1988 onwards have included details of our efforts to improve society. This idea of trying to find new ways to change society is very innovative. It resembles the process of thinking up new ice cream flavors.
Since the 1990s, we have been purchasing safe, secure supplies of milk at higher-than-usual prices in order to support ethical, small-scale farming. We also began importing ingredients from developing nations using the "Fair Trade" system, which pays farmers a fair price for their products. We also use external auditors to assess how well we have achieved our social goals.
CHANGING SOCIETY THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF ICE CREAM
We are not consumer driven--our policies and ideals are driven by our philosophy and by what we think is right. However, this way of thinking can also deliver a good economic return. An appropriate level of profitability is needed if companies are to co-exist and prosper together with society at large.
Even though we pay more for ingredients through the Fair Trade system, our ice cream costs the same as other quality ice creams. This works because we don't spend money on expensive marketing that uses fancy advertisements or sexy celebrities. If we just tell the truth, that will be our marketing. That's the theory.
Not everyone agrees with our way of doing things, with some people calling us stubborn, for example. Sticking to an independent path can also be scary for us, too, and there are sometimes divergent opinions within the company. You need a lot of courage to do things differently from the mainstream.
This commitment to social change strongly reflects Ben's activism. Ben's thinking has grown more radical over the years. My philosophy, on the other hand, is, "If it's not fun, why do it?" I think it is important to address serious issues in a light-hearted way. We try to bring a smile to things.
For example, when we wanted to tell people about the huge amounts of money set aside for military spending in the U.S. Federal Discretionary Budget, we printed a pie chart of federal expenditures on the packaging of our apple pie-flavored ice cream. This showed how half the money goes to the military and all the rest gets divided into little slices that go to the environment or to education. We were worried that people might boycott our stores and products as a result, but this never happened in the end.
Fun and social activism are compatible. We always like to combine things that don't seem to go together. Making money and doing social good is one such example, as is mixing smooth, creamy ice cream with chunks of chocolate, strawberry and walnuts to create new ice cream flavors.
Ben was also very involved personally with the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations, held last year by young people protesting rising inequality. We also offered our support as a company and distributed ice cream among the protesters.
COMPANY RETAINS PRINCIPLES DESPITE TAKEOVER
It is unusual for a company to offer any clear opinions on these kinds of controversial issues. Our political activities also anger some people.
However, we are looking for a few people who love Ben & Jerry's with a passion. Customers who support our position develop a stronger, deeper and longer-lasting connection to our products. They then tell their family, friends and acquaintances about how good our products are.
This way of doing things is not taught at any business school. Each one of our team members can throw their heart into their job if they believe in what they are doing. This way of doing business might be surprising to some people. It's generally a slower, more gradual way to grow than usual, so you need to be very patient.
When our company was acquired by Unilever in 2000, we made it a condition of the takeover that they allow us to pursue our social mission as we see fit. We have our own board of directors, separate from Unilever, and we also have the final say when it comes to fulfilling our social goals.
Ben & Jerry's now has a market value of $300 million, but we are still not satisfied. We just opened our first store in Japan this April, in Tokyo's Omotesando district, while we have only just started using Fair Trade products. We are at the beginning of a long journey to build a sustainable society.
(This article was compiled from an interview by Noriko Akiyama from Asahi Shimbun's GLOBE.)
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Jerry Greenfield was born in 1951. He was co-founder of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's, which now has more than 800 stores in 34 countries across the world. He has stepped back from the day to day running of the company and now contributes to social change as the representative of the Ben & Jerry's Foundation.
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