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Ben & Jerry’s Builds on Its Social-Values Approach

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Assistant Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from a recent New York Times piece and published here as an example of the growing consumer trend towards companies with sustainable and socially driven values and practices.

Ben & Jerry’s has announced  that it plans to become the first entirely Fairtrade major ice cream brand globally by 2013.

The Fairtrade logo on food signifies to consumers that growers have received a fair price for their produce and that a portion of the purchase price will be used to further economic development… Fairtrade sourcing will be introduced across the entire range in Europe by 2011, helping farmers to receive a living wage, work under ethical conditions and invest in their communities and businesses.

“The more engaged in the community we’ve been, the more money we’ve made,” Mr. Cohen said.

Since Mr. Greenfield and Ben Cohen first set up shop in a gasoline station in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978, selling scoops of home-made ice cream — at a loss, it turned out — the brand has built a reputation for caring more about people than profit.

It has made plenty of profit since.

“Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else,” said Jerry Greenfield, one half of the brand’s founding team.

Ben Cohen, left, and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (NYT).

The brand has been able to retain its social values business model despite its $362 million purchase by Unilever, the multinational consumer product giant, a decade ago. While founders Greenfield and Cohen, who now act as brand advisers and ambassadors, describe the difficulty and “constant struggle” of keeping the line adherent to their original ethos within the parent company’s competing values, executives of the ice cream maker say Unilever has actually been  very proactive in learning from, and applying, the Ben & Jerry’s model across other business lines.

Philippa Marshall, head of sustainable development and communications at Ben & Jerry’s, said that all Lipton tea — another Unilever brand — was now sourced using sustainable methods. Starting this year, Lipton’s Yellow Label tea bags carry Rainforest Alliance certification; by 2015, certification by the alliance, which aims to conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods for workers, will be extended to all lines of Lipton tea bags sold worldwide.

Concerned about the overfishing of cod in the North Sea, Unilever also worked with W.W.F., the international wildlife conservation organization, to develop the Marine Stewardship Council, the world’s leading certification and eco-labeling program for sustainable fisheries, she said.

Reflecting the ice cream company’s influence on its giant parent, Unilever just this week announced a major initiative, which it has dubbed the Unilever sustainable living plan. Under the plan, all agricultural raw materials used by Unilever will be produced in a sustainable way by 2020.

Announcing the plan on the company’s Web site, Unilever’s chief executive, Paul Polman, said it would “help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.”

A company statement on the Web site cited Ben & Jerry’s as a model.

“Consumers around the world want reassurance that the products they buy are ethically sourced and protect the earth’s natural resources,” it said. “A growing number are choosing to buy brands such as Rainforest Alliance Certified Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry’s Fairtrade ice cream, and Small & Mighty concentrated laundry detergents… A more sustainable brand is often a more desirable brand.”

Read the entire New York Times article.

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