As pioneers of “peace, love and ice cream,” Ben & Jerry’s have been using their brand as a platform for social activism since 1978 – but it's not always been plain sailing
by Lauren Richards
In the late 1970s, two school friends from New York – one a failed med student and the other a jack-of-all-trades taxi-driver turned artist – thought “why not?” and opened up their own “scoop shop” in a renovated gas station in downtown Vermont. All they had at the time was a $5 qualification in ice-cream making and $12,000 in capital.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have turned their low-budget life experiment into an ice-cream empire. Now, with over 600 parlors worldwide, just under 100 different flavors and a coveted acquisition from Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s is one of the biggest names in the food industry.
The thing is though, even after over 40 years selling ice cream the duo are still scooping today with the same mission objective that pushed them to open their first shop in 1978 – “peace, love and ice-cream” – a manifesto that’s about more than just swirls, chocolate chips and fudge pieces.
Rather than just a frozen delight, ice-cream is in fact the pair’s medium of choice to influence social, political and economic change. Over the years they’ve curated an eclectic library of flavors – each one delicious and creamy in its own right – but also many editions that are socially conscious.
From human rights, politics and fair trade, all the way to the economy and environment – since the seventies their flavours have been bringing awareness to global issues through ice-cream, donating scores of their profits to philanthropy.
They have even written a book about their “double-dip” business culture that prioritizes people as much as profit, explaining how to “lead with your values and make money too.”
As a B-Corporation that places social responsibility, activism and the climate equal-to or above economic status, it seems that for Ben & Jerry, peace and love might actually come before ice-cream.
“We use ice cream to change the world”
Activism is at the forefront of every level of Ben & Jerry’s business. The product, economic and social priorities of their company are all nurtured equally, and the brand strives to use their position in society to advance human rights, giving a voice to political, social and economic issues, supporting marginalized and minority communities, and protecting the environment and planet.
“We love making ice cream — but using our business to make the world a better place gives our work its meaning,” say Ben and Jerry.
In a world where any show of support is at risk of accusations such as greenwashing, virtue-signaling and moral grandstanding, Ben & Jerry’s down-to-earth yet conscious approach has kept its voice heard and its brand relevant from its “humble beginnings” to now (they were topping ice cream with sprinkles and social justice before the world was even awake to the issues of our modern-day world).
A true testament to their evergreen moral compass, Ben & Jerry’s’ ethical voice remains loud even after its $326mn acquisition in 2000 by the multinational food conglomerate, Unilever, and as far as parent-subsidiary relationships go, theirs is certainly unique.
Not only is the frozen-goods giant one of Unilever’s star buys – accounting for 2.6% of the entire ice-cream market and predicted to bring in $2.2bn this year alone – but it’s also one of their most rebellious.
Unilever vs. Ben & Jerry’s
In July earlier this year, amidst a year-long debate over ice-cream sales in Israel, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would be suing Unilever for jeopardizing their brand’s integrity.
The conflict was sparked by Ben & Jerry’s response to a “Justice in Palestine” rally last year, which saw them pledge to stop selling their ice-cream within Israeil-occupied Palestinian territories – an occupation which the UN regards as “unlawful under international law.”
The news of cutting ties with Israel sparked outrage – videos even emerged of the country’s ministers throwing tubs of the product in the bin.
In order to dispel accusations of anti-semitism and warnings of “severe consequences” from the Israeli government, Unilever pressured Ben & Jerry’s to uphold it’s franchise deal within the country, with a US court later denying the firm’s request to halt ice cream sales in parts of Israel. The case is not over yet however, as Unilever is poised to respond to the latest accusations filed by its ice cream subsidiary any day now, but whether Ben & Jerry’s will be successful in restoring their brand’s social mission is still undecided.
This is not the first – and probably not the last – time Ben & Jerry’s have used their brand voice as a flagship for change. As they say, they believe that ice cream can change the world, and from the impact of their ingredient-choice to their eco-friendly freezers – as well as everything else in between – all that they do is consciously considered.
How do you like your euphoria?
With this question, Ben and Jerry’s has attempted to satisfy every food mood with its catalog of almost 100 flavours.
But more than this, they wanted to bring attention to contemporary issues, driving “systemic progressive social change” with their flavours’ titles and profits.
Some iconically conscious flavours from the brand have included…
For the planet
Save Our Swirled
A “swirled-class” flavour and “SOS” for the planet, “Save Our Swirled” – a raspberry, marshmallow, dark and white chocolate ice-cream – launched in 2015 and was designed to raise awareness for climate change, encouraging action ahead of the Paris Climate Summit held in December of 2015.
“Our stance on climate change and our ice cream is one in the same: if it’s melted, it’s ruined,” says Ben & Jerry’s.
A year later, in 2016, Ben & Jerry’s announced they would stop making one of their very popular flavours; “Fossil Fuel,” and buried it in their “Flavour Graveyard.” They explained the rationale behind ditching the chocolatey fudge dinosaurs and swirls by saying “we believe that fossil fuels, whether ice cream or the real thing, belong in the ground.”
The flavour burial was accompanied by a call for Europe to also put an end to investing in fossil fuels, an important message given recent reports found that G20 countries invested almost $700 bn in fossil fuel projects last year alone – a 16% increase from investment of this kind in 2020, and the highest since 2014.
Unfudge our future
Their mission to combat fossil fuels didn’t end there however, as in 2020 they launched a limited edition flavour called “Unfudge our future,” using fudge brownies and peanut butter cookie dough to call on Australia’s leaders to ban the use of fossil fuels and “rebuild a clean, resilient and fair future.”
Change the Whirled
Last year Ben and Jerry’s launched a new flavour that is not only supportive of the planet, but also the people. “Change the Whirled” – designed in collaboration with racial equality activist and American football quarterback, Colin Kaepernick – is a non-dairy caramel, fudge, chocolate and Graham Cracker swirls flavour that is vegan and environmentally friendly. A portion of the proceeds from this flavour go to Kaepernick’s youth organization, “Know Your Rights Camp,” which aims to spark “the international conversation around racial justice.”
They have also launched other division-combating flavours such as “Justice ReMix’d” and “One Sweet World.”
So, climate change mostly solved now that @benandjerrys offers Save Our Swirled. Once it melts, it's never the same pic.twitter.com/KFF8YUpAZ1— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) May 31, 2015
For the people
As the stock market crashed in 1987, bankers on Wall Street were understandably stressed. What better way to cheer them up than with vanilla chocolate covered almonds, pecans and walnuts? This was exactly what Ben & Jerry did the very next day, as they headed down to Wall Street with their ice-cream truck to hand out free scoops of their aptly named new flavour – “Economic Crunch.”
Coffee, Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz!
Since 1996, one of Ben & Jerry’s longest running flavours, “Coffee, Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz!,” has been using fair trade organic coffee beans from the B Corp specialty-coffee importer – Sustainable Harvest. This collaboration supports small-holder coffee farmers around the world.
Ben & Jerry’s commitment to Fairtrade has repeatedly been showcased through their flavour creations, with 2011’s “Coconutterly Fair” – using fair trade sugar, cocoa and coconuts – and the new “Chocolatey Love A-fair” set for launch in 2023, which in collaboration with Tony’s Chocolonely supports the “mission to end modern slavery in cocoa farming.”
Another of the ice-cream giant’s collaborations,in 2007, involved CBS’ “The Late Show” host, Stephen Colbert. “Americone Dream” – a vanilla, caramel, fudge-covered waffle non-dairy ice cream – dedicates a portion of its proceeds to “The Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Fund” in support of a spectrum of charities that help disadvantaged children, veterans, and environmental causes.
I Dough, I Dough
In celebration of the US Supreme Court ruling to recognise same-sex marriages under federal law, Ben & Jerry’s renamed their “Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough” flavour to “I Dough, I Dough” in the summer of 2015, broadcasting their support for the milestone in US marriage equality.
Home Sweet Honeycomb
Honey caramel swirls and milk chocolate covered honeycomb chunks are what makes up “Home Sweet Honeycomb,” a flavour that in collaboration with the International Rescue Committee, supports refugees and urges “European leaders to give vulnerable refugees a safe place to call home.”
What’s more, the recipe’s honey comes from the German cooperative – “nearBees” – that supports small-scale beekeepers as well as their thriving populations of bees!
Today we are proud to join many other companies and their employees in standing up and walking in support of abortion providers and abortion rights. @PPFA #BansOffOurBodies pic.twitter.com/KCjOye9Adb— Ben & Jerry's (@benandjerrys) July 13, 2022
Ben & Jerry’s have shown a long-term commitment to increasing public participation in politics. Most notably, in 2009 they launched their own witty take on Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can!” campaign tagline with “Yes Pecan!,” a “buttery ice cream with roasted non-partisan pecans.” The proceeds of this limited edition flavour went to the Common Cause Education Fund.
This specific politically-focused pecan campaign was revived nine years later in 2018 with “Pecan Resist,” this time in protest of then US president Donald Trump’s unjustified policies on “racial and gender equity, climate change, LGBTQ rights, and refugee and immigrant rights.”
In 2016 Ben & Jerry’s joined the fight against voter suppression in North Carolina, with “Empower Mint” – a peppermint and fudgy brownie ice cream – from which a portion of the profits went to the state’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Change Is Brewing
Cold brew coffee, marshmallow swirls, fudge brownies and packaging featuring artwork by Black-owned businesses is Ben & Jerry’s approach to encouraging voter participation in the upcoming midterms this year.
“Change is Brewing” was originally launched in 2021, but was rebranded this year in collaboration with Black Voters Matter, to make sure black voters “have their voices heard loud and clear.”
One month until election day! 🗓️ Join us in fighting for a democracy that works for everyone.— Ben & Jerry's (@benandjerrys) October 8, 2022
Learn more about Change is Brewing: https://t.co/rMc2qefzS6
☕️ Coffee by @BlkandBold
🎨 Pint art by @SoLaciLike
✊🏿 In collaboration with @BlackVotersMtr pic.twitter.com/X9ZxAq48T8
Although Ben & Jerry’s are always looking for the next big idea, they do however also mourn the loss of dearly discontinued flavours with a commemorative ‘Flavour Graveyard,” chronicling every concoction created, enjoyed, and laid to rest to this date.
“Ice cream flavours, like everything else, have a beginning & an end,” says the message upon entering Ben & Jerry’s’ graveyard.
This memorial serves as a commemoration of some of their most iconic, weird and eccentric ideas, but also provides consumers with the opportunity to vote on which flavours they’d like to “resurrect” or “reinCONEate.”
Whether deliberate or not, their graveyard serves as a witty yet powerful tool to convert consumerist behavior into a unique record of support for specific charities and social issues, because if enough people vote for one flavour in particular, then Ben & Jerry’s may choose to bring it back and further support the flavour-associated charities.
Through the “sweeter side of activism” Ben & Jerry’s are trying to use their corporation to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Not only is this a noble mission worth supporting, but it also transforms ice-cream into a guilty pleasure without the guilt. Nice.
Like everything else in life, ice cream flavors have a beginning and an end. 🍦🪦🖤 Learn how we pay tribute to our dearly de-pinted in the Flavor Graveyard: https://t.co/Uk85VlSJ8s pic.twitter.com/8qztxSVn5p— Ben & Jerry's (@benandjerrys) October 23, 2022
About the Author
Lauren is a research scientist turned writer, currently working in open-access publishing in London alongside a Journalism Internship at Impakter. As a graduate of Medical Biological Sciences, Lauren’s origins in science have taught her to be forever curious, which is reflected in her love for sharing new concepts, perspectives, and ideas. When not reading/writing about science, culture, art, and everything in between, Lauren can most likely be found in a coffee shop or travelling.
First published in Impakter. You can read the article here.
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