Get Back in the BoxThought Virus #5: The Ben & Jerry’s Syndrome

Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming book including part of the argument about congruency. I pose that Ben & Jerry’s might not be the best model of a do-good company. I don’t mean to say that Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t do good – or that making ice cream is, in itself, an evil thing.

What I do mean to show, however, is that if you’re really thinking about building a business from the ground up that does good things for the world, you will do best to pick a business that does good all by itself. The thing you do is the thing you do. Sure, you can use the money you make doing one thing to pay for the damage it causes, and then some. Or you can simply answer a true human need – and make your contribution through the activity, itself. Profits you donate after that are icing on the cake.

Questioning the ethical commitment of a company such as Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream may be as outlandish as questioning the long-term profitability of a Wal-Mart. But just as grounded. The company was started with end-to-end social responsibility foremost in mind. It is committed to using organic ingredients, grown in a sustainable manner, from local farmers wherever possible, and with continuous monitoring of environmental impact. The company’s “social mission coordinator” oversees an employee-led grant-making program, and the human resources department is one of the most caring and lauded in any industry.

But when push comes to shove, we have to acknowledge that Ben and Jerry’s makes ice cream in a nation where 64.5 percent of the population 20 or older is overweight, 30.5 percent are obese, and type II diabetes is at an all-time high. According to the World Health Organization, obesity-related illnesses claim more than 500,000 lives each year. Ben and Jerry’s chocolate-dipped waffle cones each pack 320 calories and 10 grams of fat before any ice cream is added. Its homespun ads showing cows on clean pastures make ice cream look positively healthy. Does encouraging charitable giving, environmental responsibility, and fair labor standards compensate for the obesity encouraged by its products and marketing campaigns?

The contradiction just doesn’t stand; and neither could Ben and Jerry’s. With a sagging stock price and exhausted executives, the company agreed to be acquired by Unilever in 2000.Voicing a widespread sentiment, Governor Howard Dean told Reuters, “It would be a shame if it were sucked into the corporate homogenization that’s taking over the planet.” Ben and Jerry attempted to reassure their remaining fans, explaining that theirs would remain a separate company with its own governing board. Of course, the truly radical move would have been to infect Unilever with a bit of Ben and Jerry’s ethos from the inside out. By agreeing to be sectioned off, behemoth Unilever’s standard operating procedures could remain unchallenged. Meanwhile, Ben and Jerry’s adds yet another layer of contradiction to its already ambiguous mission: a socially conscious company selling sugar and fat to Americans, in the service of a Big Food conglomerate whose own practices Ben and Jerry’s was originally born to contest.

This division between social responsibility and revenue generation costs companies in two ways. First, it disconnects their core businesses from the real needs of real people. So they lose track of the long-term benefits they mean to bring to their customers or constituents. Second, it turns their donations and charitable work into a drain on resources, rather than a way of growing new ones.

When I see the names of some of the corporations underwriting public television or AIDS charities, sometimes I can’t help but laugh. Big Oil paying for a documentary about ecology? A weapons manufacturer paying for a show criticizing the Pentagon? This kind of behavior reminds me of the Godfather, in which a dozen “hits” ordered by Michael Corleone are intercut with a scene of the mobster in church for his son’s baptism.

Corporations aren’t the only ones with such glaringly contradictory behaviors. I’m often more surprised by the extent to which nonprofit organizations with no other stated intention than to do good end up working against their own efforts. They seem unaware that the things they actually do are as important as the issues they talk about.