Ben & Jerry have been mixing ice cream with activism for decades
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are the ice cream equivalent of Cher and Madonna: They need only be introduced by their first names. Best friends since middle school, these boyhood buddies are just as well known for their activism as they are for creating flavors like Cherry Garcia and Chubby Hubby. They’re unabashedly political and have worked for equality-for-all by raising awareness and money for environmental and social justice causes through flavors like Justice ReMix’d, Empower Mint, Yes Pecan!, and Bernie’s Yearning.
But their activism isn’t all done in a board room, they also get out on the front lines and protest.
“How many arrests? Oh, I don’t know. Not that many, three or four?,” Cohen laughs.
It wasn’t until 2020, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that dozens of American brands and companies started to be more outspoken about their stances. Ben & Jerry have been outspoken for decades. But in the early days, they were advised to keep activism and politics separate from ice cream.
“We were getting a lot of that advice,” Cohen said. “It was very controversial internally, at upper level management and at the board of directors level, and it’s something that wasn’t done. There was a lot of concern that people who didn’t agree with the stands we were taking were going to picket outside the supermarkets, and the supermarkets were going to discontinue our product, and people would be out of work. But that never happened.”
I assumed they had somehow created the perfect formula, tapped into ice cream loving customers who cared about the world as much as they did, found something rare and unique that wouldn’t work for most companies.
“When you said it wouldn’t work for every product, I don’t know why,” Cohen mused. “Why wouldn’t it work for every product? We’re taking stands for justice, we’re taking stands that reflect what are supposed to be American values. So, fairness and equality. Most people really believe in fairness and equality. Most people don’t want to go around killing people, their concerns are about education and health care, housing, and I think most of the things we support are focused on those issues.”
Ben & Jerry sold their company to Unilever 20 years ago, so it’s even more impressive that an international company that owns household brands like Lipton, Vaseline, and Popsicle has stuck with their original mission.
A couple weeks ago, when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream created a post on Instagram that started with “Yesterday was not a protest, it was a riot to uphold white supremacy,” and ended with “resign, impeach, 25th amendment, not one more day.”
An older post says “Trans Lives Matter.” In June, they posted “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.” The company uses its social media channels to explain reparations and talk about how the criminal justice system is broken in America.
“There’s an independent board of directors at the company that oversees the social mission, and those people are social activists; they are independent of Unilever,” Greenfield explained. “Another really important thing is that Unilever, probably about 10 years ago, installed a CEO at Ben & Jerry’s who really passionately supported those values of the company, and it’s really the people within Ben & Jerry’s that are pushing that mission and keeping it alive. I think it’s so amazing to Ben and me that the company not only continues its social mission, but in many ways is growing it. If you look at the company’s statement after the murder of George Floyd, it was stating very specifically, ‘We must dismantle white supremacy.’ Ben and I were just thrilled that the people at the company were doing that and that it didn’t come from us.”
This month, Ben & Jerry’s introduced a new flavor with former NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick called “Change the Whirled.” Kaepernick’s portion of the proceeds will go to his non-profit, Know Your Rights Camp.
Listen to the whole episode of “Your Last Meal” podcast with Ben & Jerry here, on your favorite podcast player, or text BEN to 98973.
Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!
- Tune in to KIRO Radio on weekdays to hear Rachel Belle.
- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.