Peggy and I took our annual vacation to the Northeast region of the United States (as I mentioned in my last post) and one of our stops was a tour of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory in Waterbury, Vermont. Wow, a tour of an ice cream factory! How could this possibly be a disappointment?
I have long admired Ben & Jerry’s business, with its strong commitment to social responsibility—to their employees, the community, and the world at large. To my knowledge, Ben & Jerry’s is one of the first companies to identify Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a vehicle to promote a vision of business accountability to a wide range of stakeholders, beyond just shareholders and investors. On its website, Ben & Jerry’s has a long list of their social initiatives including:
- GMO labeling
- Climate justice
- LGBT equality
- Get the dough out of politics
- Opposing recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH)
- Peace building
For me, personally and professionally, this is an impressive list. There is only one of these initiatives that I disagree with. (You guess.)
At the end of the 30 minute tour, I asked the tour guide about the reports of poor water quality in Vermont. The tour guide acknowledged the poor state of water quality in Lake Champlain and went on to say that he definitely correlated the poor water quality with Vermont’s agriculture. Trust me, this is no major admission. This view is widely held and reported that Vermont dairies are a major contributor to the poor water quality in Lake Champlain. I did, however, think it was impressive that the tour guide recognized the connection between poor water quality and those same dairy farms that provide milk for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
When I pressed the tour guide for what Ben & Jerry’s was doing locally to improve water quality, I was disappointed that he seemed to struggle for an answer. He mentioned The Vermont Dairy Farm Sustainability Project but didn’t seem to have too many details. Yes, I know tour guides are not taught to deal with nosy, prying, gotcha conservationists from Iowa, but I really expected more of an answer, based on how actively Ben & Jerry’s touts Corporate Social Responsibility.
When I got back to Iowa I dug deeper. Yes, Ben & Jerry’s supports water quality but from what I can glean from their website, their support is rather shallow. It seems their support for water quality amounts to supporting fundraisers. Trust me, I am not dismissing fundraisers. But let’s face it, Ben & Jerry’s makes their money from one thing – milk cows. Yes, Vermont dairies are the backbone of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream business. Given this strong connection, you would think Ben & Jerry’s could do more to work with dairy farmers to improve Vermont’s water quality. Companies, including Ben & Jerry’s could do more for sustainability by working directly with farmers than they can ever achieve within the walls of their factories or, in this case, by passively contributing to fundraisers.
I am not trying to be overly critical of Ben & Jerry’s. I think they are doing some amazing things…way more than almost any other company. But, they could do even better by thinking globally and acting locally. They need to ramp up their efforts and help dairy farmers improve the water quality in their own back yard of Vermont. Improving water quality is hard, but if a private business like Ben & Jerry’s can’t work with farmers to make a difference, who can? Lake Champlain needs their help – it’s a murky mess.
Good article, Tom. I’ve asked some of the world’s largest food processors in the chicken and pork industry similar questions regarding their sourcing of feed and waste disposal. Their replies, as you put it, were “shallow” and without deep commitment.
G Todd Comer
Unilever probably just decided to hold the line with what they were already involved with, when they bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000. To my knowledge, there has not been the active leadership in CSR since that time. The corporate behemoth probably cannot be bothered with that sort tree-hugging activity. It is definitely disappointing that tradition did not continue.
It is probably pretty difficult for any company to improve on Ben & Jerry’s CSR efforts, however I think Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, has done a lot better than most. I do have some direct knowledge of Unilever’s effort to sustainably source the soybeans for their Hellmann’s mayonnaise. They are definitely learning as they go, with a goal of continuous improvement. Going on line I was about to find these sources to support Unilever’s sustainability effort.
Yes, good article Tom. Unfortunately, the depth to which so many social activists like Ben and Jerry goes ends at the front door. I wonder how many times they have taken the time to visit the dairies that produce their milk? How many times they have gone on the record to support milk prices that would insure a safe milk supply? The extent to which our urban counterparts know what it is we do here on the farm always shows up when ever they are giving their interpretation of what is wrong with agriculture but cannot describe it in detail. They just vote against it.
Dwight, I am guessing most CEOs of food companies would feel completely out of place on a farm. However I will bet that both Ben and Jerry are very comfortable on a farm. It is only a guess, but I have a feeling both Ben & Jerry have been on more than one farm and talked to more than one farmer. I find Ben & Jerry’s commitment to sustainability, and the small family farm, quite remarkable. It is easy to be critical of corporate America, but I think this is one company that has really tried to get it right. They deserve a lot of credit. I only wish they had more of a focus to improve the water quality in Lake Champlain.
For more information: http://www.stalbanscooperative.com/membership/caring-dairy/
I think it is a bit too much to ask one company to demand everything from a farmer. When they asked nothing, we ended up with the negative externalities (pollution, etc) from the farms. To ask for everything, we end up with positive externalities (basically one paying for all the natural resource benefits that many enjoy) from the farms.
I’ve heard that positive externalities are a good thing as we can ‘catch up’ for all the free pollution over the decades, but providing positive externalities is as unsustainable as negative externalities – just in different ways.
We have an economic problem and until we are creative enough to figure this out we can only swing back and forth missing the mark pretty much everytime.
Tim, I agree it is easy to expect too much. It was not my intent to expect a company who is already doing so much to do even more. From my perspective, I would like to see then do more with water quality.
Being a big Vermont skiing fan, I first visited the Ben & Jerry’s plant not long after it opened.
The company is not what it once was in terms of strong activist leadership since Ben and Jerry sold the company to Unilever as one of your commenters noted. Ben spoke of this at a Drake Bucksbaum lecture several years ago.
BandJ is no longer privately held and Ben and Jerry to my knowledge have no role with the company. I think your idea of having food companies take a more active role in advocating for how our food ingredients are being produced including upstream impacts on resource use is a good one.
I believe Unilever is doing more work in this area, including here in Iowa and perhaps commentaries like yours will provide additional ideas for water quality advocacy work in Vermont and across the Country.