Ahead of his upcoming talk at Kepler’s, the long-time social activist & ice cream entrepreneur gives us the scoop on how business (and government) could be doing more for our communities.

(Original 650 illustration by Kaz Palladino/Awkward Affections; photo courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s)

When Ben & Jerry’s sold to Unilever in 1994, co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield walked away as millionaires. And yet Cohen, who subsequently took a step back from the company bearing his name, felt defeated.

“If the goal was to make a bunch of money, then I guess it would have been a different reaction,” Cohen told How I Built This host Guy Raz in 2017. “But that wasn’t really the goal.”

Maximizing profits had never been the mission for Greenfield and Cohen. The childhood friends set up the original Ben & Jerry’s, their homemade ice cream shop, inside of an old gas station in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978. Within just a few years, though, what had begun as a casual endeavor was soon a multi-million dollar company — and even that early success left Cohen conflicted. The pair put their company up for sale in the mid-1980s, fearing its size would corrupt their dream of owning a small-town, do-good business.

(Photo by Charles Russo)

But Cohen and Greenfield had a change of heart, and decided shortly thereafter to keep Ben & Jerry’s — so long as the company remained a force for good. The two instituted progressive business policies — the CEO of the company could only make five times more than the lowest paid employee, for instance — and over the years were vocal on a litany of social and political issues, hoping to make Ben & Jerry’s not a force for profit, but for the betterment of society as a whole.

Even after its sale to Unilever in 1994, Ben & Jerry’s — much to Cohen’s delight — retained its progressive streak (though the pay gap between CEO and line workers has expanded a bit) and has continued to voice its support for movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

Other companies have balked at taking as strong a progressive stance as Ben & Jerry’s, fearing retaliation from customer bases and stakeholders. But the thing is, Cohen says, profit and societal betterment don’t have to be at odds with each other.

“One hand washes the other,” he told us in an interview. “As your business supports the community, the community supports your business.”

Cohen, who will speak at a virtual event hosted by Kepler’s Books next week, argues that all businesses should be working for the betterment of society — that it’s time for the maximum-profit-first model to go. In the face of Trump-era deregulation, now is perhaps the most important time for businesses to make good on their promises to do good, Cohen says.

Of course, there’s lots more to say on the topic, but we’ll let Cohen do the talking. For the whole of our conversation, read below.

I wondered if you could start by telling me what you believe makes a company ‘good.’ How is that criteria decided, and how does that break with most traditional business models?

I think that businesses, like everybody else who is a member of society, need to be working for betterment of society as a whole. And business, unlike individuals, is an incredibly powerful force — and it needs to use that power for the public good. Originally corporations were granted the right to operate if they were operating in the public good. Somehow we’ve lost that element of what a corporation is supposed to do.

The standard business ‘way of being’ that had been taught at M.B.A schools for decades is that the only legit purpose of a running a business is to maximize profits. That is what has gotten us into so much trouble — that in the narrow-minded, headlong pursuit to maximize profits, businesses have ended up kind of destroying our society in terms of exacerbating the spread between rich and poor. When Ben & Jerry’s first started, the (average) spread between what a CEO got paid and what a line-level person got paid was 40:1. And we though that was absurdly large. Now it’s 400:1.

Business is an incredibly political force. But usually it operates only in its own self interest, and it uses its political influence covertly — it doesn’t want anyone to know its power, or that it’s spending billions of dollars every year to influence legislation, to influence elections, all in the narrow self interest of business.

(Photo courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s)

Tell me about stances Ben & Jerry’s has taken over the years — I know for example the company came out in support of Occupy Wall Street about a decade ago, and in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2016. Are there any additional stances the company has taken you’ve been especially proud of?

The company was very active in [advocating for] GMO [genetically modified organisms] labeling. The public wanted to know whether GMOs were in foods or not, but the industry — the whole commercial food industry — was against it. Ben & Jerry’s fought very hard to require GMO labeling, though it was a battle that we lost.

The company has been very active [in the social justice realm] before the George Floyd situation. [It helped to] shut down a prison in St. Louis called the Workhouse, where 90% of the prisoners had not been convicted of a crime. They were mostly black, they were poor, and they were awaiting trial. Because they couldn’t afford bail, they ended up being locked up in that prison. When you think about what that does to a person and a person’s life — it’s horrible, and absurd. The company worked with local organizations, and we were successful in getting that jail shut down.

The company has also been very active in the effort in Florida to make it so that people who had served their sentences for felony convictions could vote. We were a small part of a huge group of people that were working to do that, and that was successful.

[Ben & Jerry’s] has been very involved in registration for voting and encouraging people to vote. The company has also taken positions in favor of shifting money out of the Pentagon budget into education. Those are the ones that come to mind.

I guess it comes under the category of working for justice. On the wall of my office is a Ralph Nader quote that essentially says — if we had justice, we wouldn’t need charity. There’s another quote from Martin Luther King, who said, ‘true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’ Those are both wise men.

After the killing of George Floyd, we saw a number of large American companies put out statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But a statement by itself can be a hollow thing — what concrete steps should companies take to combat racism in American society?

Business determines what laws are passed in this country through lobbying. They determine who gets elected through campaign contributions. Businesses could set their lobbyists free, to overturn something like qualified immunity. [Editor’s note: Qualified immunity protects individual government officials, including police officers, from lawsuits alleging that the official violated an individual’s rights, according to Cornell Law School.]

Qualified immunity is the reason why when you see images or videos of a police officer killing an unarmed black person, then you find out the (officer) hasn’t been charged — or they have been charged, but two years later they were let off — it’s because of this doctrine called qualified immunity. There’s been legislation introduced in congress to overturn it. If business put its power behind doing that, it would be done.

What, would you say, is the role of the government in partnering with businesses to do good?

I think that government needs to create a level playing field for businesses and for people. Government needs to ensure that all of its citizens get an equal education. That’s not currently the case.

I would say government’s primary role should be (to ensure) the health of its population; it should be providing universal healthcare. You want your citizens to have the basics. I think probably a society should be judged based on how those who have the least among us are treated, and how they’re living.

(Photo by Charles Russo)

Over the last four years, we’ve seen the Trump Administration continually roll back regulation meant to protect the environment, voters, the LGBTQ+ community. They’ve also refused to acknowledge or address things like systemic racism in American society. I wondered if you could speak at all to the importance of businesses taking the lead on ‘doing good’ in the time we’re in now, since there has been a kind of gap to fill.

It used to be that originally religion was the most powerful force in the country, and then it came to be that government was the most powerful force. Today it’s business.

In a situation like what we have today, where the Trump Administration is essentially undermining efforts at equality and justice… where you have a justice department that’s now, instead of working for justice, working for injustice… yeah, business needs to step up. Business needs to understand that it has an outsized influence on society, and it can’t just go around saying, ‘I’m going to take everything I can from society and use it for my own narrow self interest.’ [They should say], ‘We have to use our power for the benefit of our communities as a whole. We have to understand that there’s a moral aspect to our lives as business people.’ That it’s not just about (business) first, screw you.

We’re based in Silicon Valley, where there’s been lots of discussion as of late about the role these companies have been playing versus the role they should be playing in our society. What, in your opinion, would be the best use of the power and resources wielded by tech giants?

I think in terms of media platforms or publishing platforms, platforms that disseminate information — social media, essentially — either that platform needs to have no algorithms that are promoting one post or another. Then [as a company], you could make the case that you’re totally neutral. But that’s not what’s going on.

What we’ve got is social media platforms that promote posts that are more controversial, that are more inciteful, more hateful. I think that needs to be controlled. In traditional television and radio media, there used to be what was called the Fairness Doctrine. You could report the objective news, or if you were gonna take a point of view, you’d have to give equal time to an opposing point of view.

It was struck down, and I think that that has created the divisiveness that we currently have in our country. People are only getting one point of view [from these platforms]. And they’re not getting the objective truth.

Any companies you see as specifically trailblazing when it comes to doing business for the betterment of the world/society?

I think Patagonia has been a real trailblazer, they’re a clothing company who is focused on getting people to use their old stuff and not continue to buy new stuff. The stuff that they’re producing is shifting toward organically produced cotton, recycled non-cotton materials. And they’re using their voice to fight for protecting the environment.

Another good one is Seventh Generation. They’re coming out with health and beauty products and paper goods that are less harmful to the environment.

There are more and more companies starting up with that principle in mind, that they’re going to use their business as a force for progressive social change. It used to be if you cared about humanity, or if you were concerned about social needs, you focused on nonprofits. Now people are starting to see that it is possible to run a business in a way that helps to repair some things in our society, and more and more small businesses are starting up like that.

It’s been a turbulent few years and now we’re finding ourselves at a precarious moment. How optimistic are you about the state of government and business moving forward?

Government can work with business either to the detriment of society or the benefit of society. As of now, they’ve been working to the detriment of society. Do I think that that’s changing? The reality is that consumers want the businesses that they’re buying stuff from to be benefiting society.

When you have a business with which people feel a shared sense of values, it’s an incredibly strong connection, and it builds an amazingly strong brand. A business like that doesn’t need to be constantly buttressed by paid advertising and big sales promotions.

Currently business and the government are working hand in hand, but not for the benefit of the community. They have a tremendous opportunity to do that (now).

Tell me briefly about your latest project — Stamp the Money out of Politics.

The root cause of problems in our society is the way that our political campaigns are financed — that politicians don’t really represent the people, they represent the money. Ninety percent of the population contributes nothing to political campaigns, which is kind of understandable. The only entities that are contributing huge amounts of money are the ultra wealthy and corporations. And they’re doing it in their own self interest.

Government should be about the health of the population, and business needs to figure out how to keep the population healthy while making a profit. For example, we’ve got a really low minimum wage in our country, which is $7.25 an hour. It’s absurd. It hasn’t gone up in (more than ten years), and you can’t live on it. But business works to keep it low. (We must) lessen the influence of business on politics.

Kepler’s Literary Foundation hosts “This Is Now: Adam Grant & Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s” on Monday November 16th, from 5–6pm. The event is online. Register here.

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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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