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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2003 : Cover : Ben & Jerry's

Ben & Jerry's:
The Commitment Lives On

By Penny Bonda and Katie Sosnowchik

More Cover Story Articles

Chiquita: Adapting to a Changing World

Why did you add the title of director of social mission to your responsibilities as CEO?

YVES COUETTE: There was a senior director of social mission, and when she decided to move on, I had two options. One was to replace this person right away, and the other was to say, “I’m going to do it.” I wanted to show a real commitment from the top. With Ben & Jerry’s being bought by a big multi-national—Unilever—people were maybe a bit skeptical about whether our social mission would continue. I said, “Look, I’m going to make it part of my job, and I’m going to show that I’m committed to it.” I think I have done so, but it keeps me very busy.

Did you or Unilever find Ben & Jerry’s commitment to social responsibility intimidating?

COUETTE: Not really. It was more about having a lot to learn, including a very different way of doing things. I’ve been working 26 years now with Unilever, and it’s very clear to me that Unilever is completely committed to corporate social responsibility and to the environment, and it has done a lot of things with great results. It’s just not being publicized too much. Ben & Jerry’s is much more visible.

The major difference between a big corporation and a company like Ben & Jerry’s is that in a lot of big corporations, actions are more centralized; there might be a corporate social responsibility person in the corporate head office. At Ben & Jerry’s, everybody’s involved—from the factory and line production workers to people in purchasing and marketing. What I like at Ben & Jerry’s is that when you believe something is right, you go for it. I think bigger companies, sometimes, are a bit shy because they feel that they want to know everything before they start acting.

Ben & Jerry’s mission statement talks about the inter-relationship between product, economics and social responsibility. Can you provide examples of how the company walks that talk?

COUETTE: I think we do it every day. Look at the product—I’ve never seen such commitment to quality in other companies. It’s something that’s top-of-mind for everybody, and we will never change that.

On social responsibility—I think most people joining Ben & Jerry’s do it for a purpose. They do it because they like the company, they are very, very creative and they are very, very committed and active in this area. What I’ve done in this area is to bring more focus, to pick one or two or three big things, and do it deeply.

The last part, which is the economics, this is the area where I have to intervene a little bit more. I think I have to make sure everybody understands what good business practice is, what acceptable levels of profit should be. And I think we’ve made good progress.

Why did Ben & Jerry’s choose to focus on global climate change?

COUETTE: If you look at our values, it’s all about the environment and social justice. So I wanted to pick something big for the environment. We started looking at global warming, and the more information we got, the more we thought it was very important and very relevant, not only for us today, but for future generations.

I’ve also learned that everybody can help; everybody can have an impact through day-to-day activities. So it becomes a grassroot activity. We asked what we could do at Ben & Jerry’s to educate people, to try to help raise awareness. And so we created our campaign on global warming called One Sweet Whirled, where we teamed up with the Dave Matthews Band and Save Our Environment, a leading coalition of scientists. We went back to the roots of Ben & Jerry’s—music and activism—for an issue that’s quite important. And it was a huge success.

It wouldn’t have been complete without a real company commitment, though. What we did within the company was first raise awareness. We also committed the company to reduce the CO2 emission of our factories and our sites by 10 percent by 2007. And we have offset, for the last two years, the emissions from our factories by buying wind energy from Native Energy.

The last thing we did, which is linked with Unilever, is to sponsor and help fund thermal acoustics refrigeration—creating cold through sound. Our dream is that, a few years from now, everybody will have a freezer or refrigerator at home that is based on sound and not on polluting gas.

Do you believe the public cares about a company’s social mission?

COUETTE: Oh, yes. If I travel anywhere and I start talking to somebody and tell them I work for Ben & Jerry’s, people want to talk about the company; they say they love the business, they love the product. We know from our own research that, of course, a lot of consumers buy our products because they are absolutely outstanding. But it’s also true that many of our consumers are very, very interested in what we do. Over the years, Ben & Jerry’s has built a brand with value. It means something.

Are you setting standards for other companies to emulate?

COUETTE: Not consciously. We do things because we believe it’s right. It’s a priority for us. Maybe sometimes we set benchmarks because people look at us and say, “Wow, what they’re doing is cool. Let’s do it, too.” But, in the same way, we are always looking outside at other companies, what they are doing, because we are trying to improve.

For me, it’s an ongoing process. It’s always a moving target. If there’s one benchmark that I wish we could set, it’s that we would all be open to share. If people look at us and say, “I want to do that,” they are free to come to us, to talk to us—we share everything.

Which of Ben & Jerry’s achievements are you most proud of?

COUETTE: I can probably give you four, which are all very different. I said earlier that I had to look carefully at the economics of the company. One thing I had to do, which is something nobody likes to do, is manufacturing restructuring. It didn’t make sense to me for the company to have so many sites. We operated two sites in the south of Vermont that were opened years ago for social reasons, because the south of Vermont was a bit depressed—there weren’t many jobs there. So, it was a real social decision to do that. But a couple of years ago, this was hard for the company to justify. So I needed to close them, but I wanted to do it in the Ben & Jerry’s way. And we did. When we eliminated the jobs, we gave employees the best severance package we could. We also managed to sell both sites to other companies that are now operating them and are hiring back most of our employees. So, between the employees that are being hired back at those sites and the jobs created in our factories in the north of Vermont—we managed to basically put the company in a better financial situation for the long-term and do something good for the communities. For me, that was very important.

The second one we’ve also talked about already—raising awareness of global warming. I think it’s right that we are focusing on it.

We also launched this year a range of products that we called For a Change, products in which the ingredients are sourced from small co-op farms all over the world—from Latin America, to Indonesia, to other countries. Last, we are testing this year and hopefully going national next year with a line of organic products, which I believe is long overdue for Ben & Jerry’s—it fits with the brand.

What are your biggest environmental challenges?

COUETTE: In the next couple of years, I would say it’s distribution and transport—we have to move products around the country, and we have a lot of refrigerated trucks going everywhere. It’s something that’s difficult for us to impact, because it’s a bit outside of what we do. Hopefully, the Thermal Acoustic Refrigeration project is going to have some good results.

The second area is packaging. In many companies, certainly for us, it’s about 30 percent of our product cost. We are always looking at ways of getting more efficient and better packaging. Then, if you look at landfill waste, 35 percent of everything you find there is packaging as well. So, it’s a major issue. We have a project now to see how and when we can have compostible packaging.

Were you surprised by being named a joint winner of this Reporting Award? How do you feel about being paired with Chiquita?

COUETTE: The award means a great deal to us. It recognizes exactly what we are trying to be and trying to do, which is all about transparency. We believe that transparency is the way to make progress—recognizing what’s going well and what is not going so well, and accepting the fact that nothing is perfect, but we can improve. If there’s something that we are doing wrong, we are prepared to recognize it and change it.

We’re always surprised when we get an award because everything we do in this company we do out of passion—it’s part of our every day life. Everything we report here is as much for ourselves as for the outside world; it’s a way of benchmarking ourselves against ourselves. So, we just do it and we report it. Then suddenly we get this nice reward. We are very honored.

I think it’s great to see companies, such as Chiquita, committing themselves to become socially responsible businesses. Chiquita is in a unique position to lead the way—it is dealing with the developing world where it can have a huge impact. And it has done that through very, very difficult times. I believe it shows their commitment; I wish that many, many more companies were doing that as well.

By having a social audit and more transparency, it is going to help everybody in the long run. If we and other businesses are more open and more transparent and do a better job every year, the world can be a better place. I know we’re going to change the world one pint at a time.

A Worthwhile Effort

For the past decade. Ben & Jerry’s reporting efforts have fallen on the shoulders of Andrea Asch, manager of natural resource use. In the beginning, she recalls, it was pretty much a “fill-in-the-blank process.” Those efforts quickly evolved under her watchful eye, though, into a more usable, friendly document that would have a broad range of applications to students, to investors (at the time the company was publicly traded), and as a resource for other businesses.

“ My goal,” says Asch, “was to take it from being a dry database report, to something that was much more prose oriented, that would draw a reader in.

I needed to find a way to make the report usable and of interest—hence the short paragraphs with bullet points, graphs, diagrams and pictures that incorporate the cachet of our business.

“ We’re a very transparent company,” she continued, “so the more I report, the better
not only for us, but for other businesses and industries.”

The process of gathering information, said Asch, has also evolved over time. “When I’m out at the plants or wandering on our site and I see something that is really great, I’ll ask people to keep track of it. Then I go back and make a note in my file of who to see when it comes time to gather information. And a lot of people are keepers of information; I just let them know I’m coming and they give me the information I need.”

Much of the report is also data driven, she notes, data that is put in spreadsheets and faithfully maintained during the year.

And while “delighted” to have received the award for the 2002 report (which was submitted unbeknownst to Asch by her administrative assistant Ave Glasspetter), she does not intend to rest on these laurels. Asch continues to push for the report to improve—not unlike the socially responsible efforts of the company itself.

“ I’d like to use it more as a tool for us to evaluate how we’re doing, and I’d like to be more up-front with that in our subsequent reports.

I’d like to drive us for more follow-through on initiatives that we’ve taken and then close the circle on what the results of those initiatives were. And I’d just like to change some of the design and texture of the report, just to keep it a more viable product. I think it’s going to be much jazzier and more exciting.

“ It’s a good way for us to really stop and ask questions about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” she adds. “So even though it might be a bit tedious, I know that the more we can keep it alive and interesting for people, then to me it’s worth the effort—and that makes it worthwhile.”


Chiquita ...

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