"Ice Cream Social": The Ben & Jerry's Story

I thought I knew the essence of the Ben & Jerry's story: scrappy start-up wins the hearts, minds, and stomachs of an adoring fan base, and eventually gets swallowed whole by a big multinational.
12/01/2014 04:51 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

I thought I knew the essence of the Ben & Jerry's story: scrappy start-up wins the hearts, minds, and stomachs of an adoring fan base, and eventually gets swallowed whole by a big multinational.

But meeting Brad Edmondson at the Net Impact conference last month prompted me to read his book Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's (Berrett-Koehler, January 2014) -- which opened my eyes to the existential struggles of a company committed to a triple bottom line before anyone knew what that meant, including its co-founders. This book has much to teach not just ice cream lovers and those of us who think about corporate social responsibility for a living, but anyone interested in the role of business in society.

I was a devotee of Ben & Jerry's for much of the '80s and '90s, and spent many happy evenings on the couch with a Knicks game and a pint (usually Cherry Garcia, though Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Heath Bar Crunch, and Mint Chocolate Cookie all had regular spots in the rotation). My college boyfriend gave tours at the original Waterbury plant during his summers back home in Vermont; while he had many great qualities, the freezer in his garage full of reject pints that staff could take home (too many chunks?!) was a particularly attractive one.

My supply was cut off when I moved to Asia, so my gastronomic interest in the company waned. But professionally I was heading squarely into Ben Cohen's and Jerry Greenfield's world of trying to align business and societal interests -- though I suspect they would be horrified to hear their company's efforts likened to BP's.

Yet I thought I had little to learn from Ben & Jerry's beyond inspiration. Co-founders and a board hellbent on social good? A product that brings joy (if, with excess, health problems)? Roots and operations in small-town New England? Where's the challenge in that?

But Ice Cream Social shows that Ben & Jerry's didn't have it easy. The company's struggles echo those of any business trying to understand and manage its social impacts: how to measure results; how to integrate a credo throughout the value chain, from suppliers to retail; which causes to champion with company resources; how to structure executive compensation that is both lucrative and equitable; how to find investors and investments whose values are aligned; and what international expansion looks like in a values-driven business.

The evolution of Ben & Jerry's social reporting, from qualitative assessments by external experts to a more rigorous, metrics-based approach, should be of particular interest given the current movement towards integrated reporting for public companies.

There were a few narrative detours early in the book that made for a bumpy start, but on the whole it was an easy, terrific read. I was riveted by the blow-by-blow account of the machinations leading up to Unilever's purchase of the company in 2000; not since Barbarians at the Gate has a corporate takeover been such a page-turner.

In the first few years after Unilever took over, Ben & Jerry's high quality standards took a nosedive as the new corporate bosses tried to cut costs. But the independent board that Ben & Jerry's fought to include in the legal agreements governing the sale eventually started flexing its muscles and continues to do so today, maintaining control over Ben & Jerry's products and social mission (including the noteworthy example of a living wage for all of its workers).

The book ends on an optimistic note, citing the independent board as well as current Unilever CEO Paul Polman's outspoken commitment to sustainability -- which sounds a lot like the values that Ben & Jerry's held from its humble beginnings.

Edmondson's book was the perfect read for Thanksgiving weekend, in the spirit of both happy eating and appreciating what's important. Everyone who wants to see business be more fair and just, but also wants a deeper appreciation for how hard that is to achieve, should read Ice Cream Social.

I am reinspired to curl up with a pint of Ben & Jerry's at the end of a long day, at least a day when I've managed to squeeze in a run. I'm less inspired to start watching the Knicks again, but we'll save that for another post.