Ben & Jerry's:
Commitment Lives On
By Penny Bonda and Katie Sosnowchik
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
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
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
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
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
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
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