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Business

Ben & Jerry's founders say focus on social causes has helped business

The duo, who grew up on Long Island, have used their company to support causes from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.

At Adelphi University on Wednesday, the co-founders of ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's discussed their company's efforts to help underserved communties and also talked about their positions on the Nike advertising campaign.   (Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon)

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, namesakes of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., spoke Wednesday evening at Adelphi University about the many causes their company has supported over the years, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.

The co-founders of the company, which churns out flavors such as Cherry Garcia and Americone Dream — Cohen's and Greenfield’s favorites, respectively — shared their experiences and thoughts on running a socially conscious business in a packed theater at the school’s performing arts center.

“There’s a huge difference between businesses doing some charitable giving and businesses being values-led in terms of integrating a concern for the community into their day-to-day business activities,” Cohen said in an interview before the lecture. “There’s thousands of corporations out there that are running their business in a way that’s destructive to the community on a day-to-day basis, and then at the end of the year they give away half of 1 percent or 1 percent of profits.”

Cohen and Greenfield, who grew up on Long Island, both attended Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick. The longtime friends-turned-business-partners launched their ice cream company in 1978 out of a single ice cream parlor in Burlington, Vermont. Today, the firm's products are sold globally.

While the duo credits much of the company’s growth and staying power to its focus on social issues, there were concerns that the company would not continue its social mission leading up to its sale 18 years ago.

Ben & Jerry's was sold to conglomerate Unilever in 2000. Cohen and Greenfield are employed by the company with the title of co-founders but are not involved in day-to-day management of the business.

Though the company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever, as part of the acquisition deal the ice cream maker created an independent board of directors to focus on Ben & Jerry’s social mission, ensure product quality and “protect and defend Ben & Jerry's brand equity and integrity,” according to the company’s website.  

Greenfield said that in supporting some of the movements the company has, Ben & Jerry’s has generated criticisms.

“Ben & Jerry’s has certainly done campaigns or supported positions that are not entirely popular,” he said. “The company has publicly supported Black Lives Matter, the company has for years been supporting marriage equality, Ben & Jerry’s came out in public support of Occupy Wall Street.

“We certainly hear from people who don’t agree with it,” Greenfield said. “In the long run, doing what you believe is right is going to serve the company better.”

During their presentation, Cohen detailed some of the ways Ben & Jerry's has integrated social values into its business, including the use of fair-trade coffee beans grown by Mexican peasant farmers in their coffee-flavored ice cream; using Brazil nuts grown in the rain forests of South America in one of its flavors to promote environmental preservation; turning to a Yonkers bakery that employs former convicts and recovering drug addicts to bake the brownies used in the company's Chocolate Fudge Brownie flavor; and providing social service agencies that work with at-risk kids opportunities to own franchise shops.

All of these efforts and more, Cohen said, have added value to the business and aided the company as it grew. 

"The bond that you create with a consumer based on shared values is the deepest bond that you can possibly form," Cohen said. 

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