Back to Basics: When Ben & Jerry’s Dropped rBGH

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4852145746_a3a15cf4ba_zWhen two childhood friends, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, started Ben & Jerry’s in 1978, they operated out of a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont. This small company with a big personality served up novelty products with witty names, such as Chubby Hubby, Cow Power and Holy Cannoli. Chubby Hubby was later renamed in ‘Hubby Hubby,’ to voice support for same-sex marriage.

This is just one of many examples of how Ben & Jerry’s has created a rich brand personality by standing by its social and environmental values. The company embraces its three-part mission: to make fantastic ice cream, manage for sustainable financial growth and make the world a better place. This triple-bottom line approach to business allowed Ben & Jerry’s to become what Brad Edmondson described as “one of the most iconic mission-driven companies in the world” in his book, “Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s.” The company even occasionally put financial goals below its commitment to food safety.

The fight against rBGH

In 1989, Ben & Jerry’s came out in opposition of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), developed by the agricultural biotech company Monsanto. This genetically engineered hormone is given to cows to increase milk production by up to 30 percent, but sadly it has numerous known negative effects on cows and humans alike.

Cows treated with rBGH show a significant increase in health problems, including a greater risk of lameness, udder infections (commonly treated with antibiotics) and serious animal reproductive problems. Some studies have also linked rBGH to concerning human health effects, including the development of certain tumors and prostate, breast, colorectal and other cancers.

Even though rBGH brought the price of milk down, Ben & Jerry’s didn’t want any of it. The ice cream men decided to continue to source milk from St. Albans Cooperative, a co-op with 450 family farmers. The ice creamery paid a premium to exclusively purchase milk from farms that took a pledge not to use rBGH. Ben & Jerry’s showed its large personality when it took the bold step of not only sourcing milk without rBGH for its own products, but also publicly opposing its approval and use. The company made these decisions because it was the right thing to do, even if it raised the cost of production.

Stealing headlines with a social mission

But the socially-minded dessert makers wanted to have some fun along the way. The company decided to make a splash with its public opposition, too: “Ben & Jerry’s launched their rBGH-free label on the same day that Monsanto made rBGH commercially available, and they basically hijacked the story,” Brad Edmondson explained. “They gave reporters a quick and easy way to summarize the anti-rBGH discussion. They stuck to that and were very vocal about it, and the coverage was not what Monsanto hoped it would be.”

Consumers bought into the branding so this decision did help to boost sales, despite the increased cost of production. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.The Attorney General of Illinois and several other states initially prohibited Ben & Jerry’s from mentioning rBGH on their product labels, which effectively meant the ice cream couldn’t be sold in those states.  But Ben & Jerry’s fought back: they sued and won the right to sell products with the rBGH-free label everywhere.  Ben & Jerry’s sued the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, later winning the right to label their products as rBGH-free.

“Ben & Jerry’s used their reputation to take a political position that no one else could have taken as effectively,” Edmondson said. “It was the use of brand equity to push social change, and it had only had been done a few times before and not on this scale. It was a huge wake-up call to people, and it helped get the socially responsible business movement into gear.”

It is consistent with the Ben and Jerry’s brand to be vocal and unstoppable when confronting issues the company is passionate about, which likely led to the demise of rBGH sales. By 2007, a mere 17 percent of  U.S. cows were treated with rBGH, and the hormone was banned in many countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union, showing Monsanto’s product was a failure. According to Janice Neitzel, principal of Sustainable Solutions Group and a responsible animal protein consultant, consumer demand is fueling the sales of rBGH-free products.

“For close to a decade, U.S. consumers have said they don’t want growth hormones like rBGH in their milk, as evidenced by the tremendous sales growth of organic milk, which forbids the use of rBGH,” Neitzel said.

New parent company, same long-term sustainability values

Beyond rBGH, Ben & Jerry’s food safety story has taken some interesting twists and turns. In 2000, the British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s for $326 million, making it a a wholly-owned autonomous subsidiary. However Ben & Jerry’s continues to trumpet social causes, even those that conflict with its parent company’s position.

For example, Ben & Jerry’s supports Vermont’s efforts to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs), while its corporate parent does not. The negative PR threat of trying to silence outspoken Ben & Jerry’s has allowed the company to maintain its corporate values, despite the difference of opinion.

Now Ben & Jerry’s is producing flavors sourced with non-GMO ingredients, and encouraging consumer’s right to know with a “labelizing it” campaign. Its sense of humor and values have not faded, and Ben & Jerry’s continues to be the poster child for social responsibility, although some activists are skeptical given its corporate parent.

“Ben & Jerry’s has recently completed a very extensive and arduous process that get GMOs out of all their ingredients, and there are something like 110 ingredients in their products,” Edmondson said. “That was another enormous commitment of resources and time. The effect on the bottom line is debatable, but the effect on the brand is clear.”

Ben & Jerry’s has led the way as a brand with purpose, showing other companies that it’s possible to do the right thing — even if it isn’t always the easiest financial call.

Image credit: Flickr/Qfamily

Sarah Lozanova is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.