On Becoming an Ecopreneur

New America Media, Commentary, Ben Cohen Posted: Sep 08, 2008

Editor’s Note: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield co-founded Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, a multi-million dollar business which promotes political and environmental activism, in 1978 on an investment $8,000.

After a few years Jerry and I said, “We’re not spending our time making ice cream and scooping ice cream. We’re hiring and firing, dealing with lawyers and accountants and correspondence, and trying to do the books.”

This was not our idea of a good time. We decided to sell the business. I ran into an eccentric restaurateur I knew and told him, “Maurice, business exploits the community, the environment, its workers.” He said, “If you don’t like the way business works, why don’t you just change it?”

We decided to keep the business and see if we could use it as a force for progressive social change, to engage in an experiment to see if it was possible to use the tools of business to repair society.

Business is essentially organized human energy plus money, which equals power. And business has now become the most powerful force in the world. Business controls our media through ownership, our legislation through lobbyists, our elections through campaign contributions, and the lives of average citizens as employees and customers. All of this is done in the narrow self-interest of business without a concern for the common good. Business has never had the common good as part of its mission. That’s why today this most powerful force is just starting to be concerned about the fallout from this headlong rush toward short-term profitability.

We compartmentalize our lives. We deal with our social concerns by giving money or time, our spiritual concerns in church or temple or mosque, and our financial needs in business. If we’re ever going to accomplish our goals, we need to integrate those social and spiritual concerns into the entity where we as human beings are most powerful—into the business world.

A big part of the problem is that the only way that business measures success is by profit. We said, “If the problem is in how we measure success, why don’t we just change the way we measure our success?” So, we redefined the bottom line. We called all our employees together and said, “From now on, the bottom line at Ben and Jerry’s is in two parts: How much have we improved the quality of life in the community? And how much profit is left over at the end of each month. If we haven’t contributed to both those objectives, we have failed.”

The key is for the business to choose courses of action that have a positive effect on both parts of the bottom line. At first glance, that seems impractical. We’ve all been brought up to believe that we deal with our social concerns in the nonprofit world, and our financial concerns in the for-profit world. But once you change that mindset, the opportunities to combine both are limitless.

This is not philanthropy; it’s factoring a third variable into the equation. Usually a business makes decisions based on price and quality or speed. We added in a third factor, the impact on the community. It makes it more interesting and more complex. Here are a few examples of how we did it at Ben and Jerry’s.
I ran into Bernie Glassman, who was running a bakery which provided job training for formerly unemployable people—ex-convicts, the homeless, addicts—to help them get back into the workforce. We said, “If we can find some product that this bakery can make for us that we can use in our ice cream, we’ll be able to sell that ice cream and make money, and also help that social enterprise.” That’s how the flavor Chocolate Fudge Brownie happened. Today we buy over $2 million a year worth of brownies from the Graceton Bakery.

We were making ice cream in Vermont, where one of the major socioeconomic problems was that the economy of many towns was based on family dairy farms, which were rapidly going out of business. We decided that all our milk and cream would come from Vermont family farms. When the artificial growth hormone rBGH came out, we decided that all our milk would not use rBGH.

We learnt that the rain forest was being destroyed and a study said that if the fruits, nuts and vegetable dyes growing there were sustainably harvested, the rain forests could be as economically viable as when they were destroyed and turned into cattle ranches. That’s how we came up with the flavor Rainforest Crunch, which was designed to maximize the use of Brazil nuts, a nut that has never been cultivated. Every Brazil nut ever eaten has been grown in the wild and sustainably harvested in the rain forest.

We developed a banking relationship with the South Shore Bank, the first community development bank in the country. And we invested in low-income housing tax credits.

Eventually we wrote a book called, “Ben and Jerry’s Double-Dip: How to Lead with Your Values and Make Money, Too.” It concludes with the idea that perhaps the most powerful tool that business has is its voice.

So, 10 years ago, a small group of businesspeople met to see if we could use business tools to understand why there are so many unmet needs in the richest country in the world and what we could do about it. We became Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with over 700 members, including the former heads of Hasbro, PhillipsVan Heusen, Visa, and Goldman Sachs, as well as a lot of unknowns.

First we looked at the federal budget pie chart. Housing, education, the environment, and community development get all these little slivers. The Pentagon gets 50 percent.

The Pentagon only grew to be 50 percent of the budget during the cold war, when we were in an arms race with another super power. Now that the United States is the only superpower, we figured Pentagon spending could be reduced. We consulted with former admirals and generals who assured us that we could reduce the Pentagon budget by $60 billion a year (about 15 percent) and still protect the nation’s vital interests.

With that amount of money, we could rebuild every public school in the United States; provide health insurance for every American child that doesn’t have it; provide food self-sufficiency for the 6 million kids who die of starvation each year around the world; reduce our need for oil by 50 percent; and provide job training for another 250,000 laid off workers each year.

Our country, the last remaining superpower in the world, needs to learn to measure strength not by how many we can kill, but by how many we can feed, clothe, house and care for.

A longer version of this article appears in The Green Festival Reader: Fresh Ideas from Agents of Change, edited by Kevin Danaher and Alisa Gravitz. It can be found at www.p3books.com.

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