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Is Ben & Jerry's a Trojan Horse of Corporate Social Responsibility in Business?

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream has been a Certified B Corporation since 2012. Their Founders wrote a book on values-led business. It’s titled “Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip: Lead With Your Values and Make Money, Too.” 

On Ben & Jerry’s website, it reads: “Ben & Jerry’s strives to be a social justice company that makes ice cream.” 

In late February of this year, the New York Times reported migrant child labor is employed to “process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.” But when asked about the discovery of this child labor in their supply chain, Ben & Jerry’s head of “values-led sourcing” said:

“…if migrant children needed to work full time, it was preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.”

If children need to work, they should do it for a values-led business! Is there not something a bit oxymoronic about calling a workplace that employs migrant child labor “well-monitored?” 

The people exploiting children also offer a healthy work environment?

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Confused, I reached out to the PR team at Ben & Jerry’s to see if anyone would be open to comment about The New York Times’ reporting. I was referred to a statement (that said little substance) instead.

While I could annotate the whole thing, and maybe I should, to summarize for our purpose here, I’ll direct us to one section. The statement reads: 

“Let us be extremely clear: Ben & Jerry’s stands in strong opposition to child labor. We have a long history of standing for justice and equity, and using our business to improve the lives and livelihoods of those we serve and work with.”

The entire statement is essentially this: Let us be clear: we think child labor is bad. Look at these other things we’ve done in the past that are good. 

I advise you to read the whole statement for yourself, but not once does Ben & Jerry’s acknowledge the reporting directly. Not once do they specifically address the supplying farm or findings in question. 

And when I wrote back, “Are you sure this is what you want to say?” 

They said in effect, “Yup.” 

Two months after that report was published, the UK branch of Ben & Jerry’s released a new flavor, called “Sunny Honey Home,” which they made in collaboration with eight refugee entrepreneurs.

Proceeds will help refugee-led start-up companies. 

Maybe this is all just a misunderstanding, and the migrant child laborers working in Ben & Jerry’s supplying dairy farms in the U.S. are really in some sort of entrepreneur-in-training program…

So what’s going on here? A Certified B Corporation? Founders who were pioneers in better business? A company today that still takes very public stances as it seems to pertain to their “progressive, nonpartisan social mission.” \

I think Dean Cycon, Founder of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, described it well in the prologue to his excellent book, Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee which he published in 2007. Dean wrote: 

“Many people said we [Dean’s Beans] would be “the Ben & Jerry’s of coffee,” but that company was transforming rapidly into just another big business owned by a multinational with rich but disgruntled founders. No thanks. I wasn’t doing this to become a “grow it and sell it” millionaire. Nor did I want to cash in on my “social responsibility” as the new owners kept the public persona but hollowed out the core principles of the business—a frequent dynamic with “progressive” businesses these days.” 

In 2000, Ben & Jerry’s was sold to Unilever, the multinational valued well over $100 billion.

On the outside, Ben & Jerry’s has retained its activist flavor. On the inside? Incidents like this seem to shed some light on a different ethos. 

There have been little but crickets heard since this story broke. I contacted the Certified B Corporation community; they said they’d conduct an “internal review.” I haven’t seen or heard a thing months later. 

However, I did see a proposed class action lawsuit alleging Ben & Jerry’s is selling ice cream that is not ethically sourced as advertised. 

On Ben & Jerry’s US website, however, while the statement is still live, it’s been removed from the blog feed where it was initially published, so you cannot find it (easily, anyway) unless you had a direct link.  

If a tree falls in the forest…does it make a sound? 

If no one’s talking about Ben & Jerry’s migrant child labor in their supply chain, should they make any noise about it? 

The PR rep that I reached out to declined my request for further questions because they were protecting the “brand.” 

Because it’s good for their business, but it’s not their business. 

Ben & Jerry’s has become a paramount example of what happens when you build a brand around ethics, morals, activism, and responsibility but have your business abide by different standards.

Being responsible in business, being ethical in business, and being sustainable in business is more about doing the boring things in business right. 

Being a better business is about doing business better. It’s not about telling everyone you’re better. 

Please don’t sell me on a vision that ice cream can change the world. 

Make the best possible ice cream you can in the best possible way. And that means as ethically and sustainably as possible. 

Know your supply chain. Accept accountability. Abide by nearly 100-year-old labor laws. 

A pioneer in better business? We’re missing table stakes to justify being in business? Actions like this from Ben & Jerry’s frankly undermine the many, many businesses and business leaders who have committed to doing the boring things right. 

A Trojan Horse of social responsibility in business. A brand saying one thing, the business doing another.

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