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Ben & Jerry’s has taken on so many social and environmental issues that it is easy to forget the quirky brand has been making ice cream for almost four decades. The Vermont-based company is not shy about its activism. And Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, has long stayed out of the way as consumers continue to buy its iconic pints with a massive side of consciousness. From climate change to Fair Trade, to LGBT equality and freeing elections from moneyed interests, Ben & Jerry’s continues to polarize literally and figuratively, with both its politics and frozen treats.
Ben & Jerry’s latest cause is full alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, notwithstanding the calls for a boycott due to what opponents say is a “dangerous” campaign.
That criticism comes despite Ben & Jerry’s statements that it respects the law enforcement community; but the company says it also believes society needs to work on addressing systematic racism and “admit that there is a problem.” On that point, the ice cream giant posted an article on its website outlining seven points which make the case that systematic racism is a problem across U.S. society. From disparities in income level, education, housing, healthcare and, of course, the criminal justice system, the company encourages customers to challenge their assumptions about each other, and offers suggestions on how citizens can confront this ongoing struggle.
When it comes to equality and overcoming racism, Ben & Jerry’s has taken its strongest action on voting rights. In response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that reversed much of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the company supported same-day voter registration, encouraged voting by mail and joined forces with Democracy Awakening. Ben & Jerry’s also urged Congress, while extolling citizens to pressure Washington, D.C., to reauthorize the now-gutted Voting Rights Act, which a half century ago ended poll taxes, property-ownership requirements and other restrictions on African-Americans’ right to vote that dated back to the Jim Crow era. And in a move that turns the idea of cause marketing on its head, the company launched a flavor of ice cream, Empower Mint, that highlighted its commitment to voting rights while funneling donations to the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Ben & Jerry’s focus on voting rights, a large part of the fight against racism, flies in the face of the latest narrative in this year’s presidential election. Down in the polls and flailing after two miserable debate performances and accusations of past sexual assault, Donald Trump’s latest dog whistle (some would say screaming siren) is his insistence that next month’s election will be “rigged.” Trump’s attempt to suppress the vote, especially of younger Americans, Latinos and African-Americans, has amplified despite the fact that Republican attorneys say the evidence of fraud in elections is practically non-existent. A former operative, who attempted to rig the 2002 U.S. Senate election in New Hampshire, said such a feat would be impossible.
Ben & Jerry’s insists it wants to encourage debate and is respectful of all parties vested in the Black Lives Matter debate and movement. But the pro-police movement Blue Lives Matter accused both the BLM movement and Ben & Jerry’s of spreading misinformation. In a blog post last week, the organization asked consumers to boycott the products of both Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever. Never mind that the company is not condemning law enforcement officers, only that it is asking for greater transparency and accountability – Ben & Jerry’s stand has provoked much backlash on social media and vitriolic rehash of its past political positions (some of which have been proven untrue by websites such as Snopes).
Landing in the middle of a race debate is always a risk for companies and brands. Starbucks' Race Together campaign in early 2015 came across as more awkward than enlightening. Airbnb took a huge hit on its already battered reputation as it tried to prevent what critics say is systematic racism among hosts offering rooms and properties. But in an era in which employees increasingly wish to work for companies with a conscience, having that frank discussion about race is a way to move society forward – especially with the current disintegration of honest discourse in U.S. politics.
Image credit: Ben & Jerry’s
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.