Ben & Jerry’s is the latest B Corp company, number 635 to be exact. Even 11 years after Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s, the funky maker of Chunky Monkey still draws the ire of “green business” mavens who lack a fundamental understanding of American business law. I witnessed the heckling two years ago at a Ben & Jerry’s media event announcing its shift to sourcing fair trade certified ingredients: green bloggers were quick to dart out complaints that they company had “sold out” by becoming a subsidiary of the Dutch-British conglomerate. (Nevermind that the case was slightly more complicated than that.)
And criticism comes from the left and right. No good deeds go unpunished, and the company’s dedication to fighting the good fight for unpopular causes did not mean the company could avoid harassment by food police groups including the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Criticisms aside, Ben & Jerry’s still chugs along, infuriating groups such as the 5-woman group who call themselves the Million Moms and drawing attacks from Bill O’Reilly for its support of Occupy Wall Street.
The real Ben and Jerry are not technically part of the company’s organizational structure but are still very much involved behind the scenes. In fact, at that media event in October 2010, when I saw them helping themselves to the breakfast the company catered one morning, I thought to myself that it was nice of the company to allow its maintenance workers to participate in the event. But no, they were Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, still proud of their Wavy Gravy and Karamel Sutra. Their impact on the company will never melt, and so it figures that this square peg among Unilever’s family of brands has scored the B Corp seal of approval. Meanwhile Unilever has undergone a massive transformation, aggressively integrating its “Sustainable Living” plan within all of its brands as the company moves towards reducing its environmental impact by 2020.
So what has Ben & Jerry’s done to become the first subsidiary to earn this B Corp label?
Environment: That pint of ice cream and its day’s worth of calories is in a container made with Forest Stewardship Council certified paper. The company monitors its water consumption and emissions–and purchases offsets for half of those emissions.
Community: Most would agree this is where Ben & Jerry’s shines. Let’s start with the company’s commitment to buy local Vermont milk at a premium, which contributes to Ben & Jerry’s diverting 45 percent of its cost of goods sold (COGS) to investments that help support small scale farmers. Employees collectively donated over 5000 hours of community service. And 40 percent of the company’s management team and board are from traditionally underrepresented populations.
Employee engagement: Employees at Ben & Jerry’s score benefits most of us had in our apartment buildings, such as a community garden and health and wellness programs. The lowest paid employee on average earns 46 percent more than minimum local living wages. Of course, we have to mention the free product employees enjoy at the company’s offices and factories.
Corporate governance: For the most part Ben & Jerry’s sings its own tune even though it is a Unilever brand. The company has an independent board that has the authority to support and defend Ben & Jerry’s social agenda. Every year the company also releases an audited social and environmental assessment report (SEAR) that covers its social and environmental work.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.
Image courtesy Ben & Jerry’s.