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Ben & Jerry back to roots, seeking social change

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. has attracted its aging-hippie founders back to the company for the first time in years, as it lobbies to shift federal spending from nuclear missiles to children's programs.
Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield
Ben Cohen, center, and Jerry Greenfield, right, serve ice cream to Washington residents Tuesday to kick off a federal budgets priority campaign. Nick Wass / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. is returning to its social activism roots, attracting its aging-hippie founders back to the company for the first time in years, as it lobbies to shift federal spending from nuclear missiles to children’s programs.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are leading the company’s “American Pie” campaign, designed to persuade consumers to demand a change in spending priorities. Their goal is to shift $13 billion that now pays to maintain thousands of nuclear bombs into pediatric health insurance, schools or other programs for kids.

“Do you really need 10,000 nuclear bombs?” Greenfield asked in a telephone interview from Washington, where he and Cohen kicked off the campaign Tuesday. “How many nuclear bombs are you going to send anywhere? Five? 10?”

Greenfield and Cohen gained fame as they parlayed their business, founded after they took correspondence courses on making ice cream, into a multimillion-dollar publicly traded company that became the subject of a bidding war.

Dutch conglomerate Unilever won that war against two other companies and an investor group in 2000 with a $326 million bid. Cohen and Greenfield have since kept away, disillusioned that Unilever has not vigorously pursued the mission of corporate social responsibility it accepted with the purchase.

That’s changing this week as the company launches “American Pie,” just the kind of social activism mixed with marketing and a touch of whimsy that Cohen and Greenfield practically invented.

The company has created a new ice cream flavor — American Pie, made from apples and pie crust pieces. Lids from pints of ice cream will carry information about ways to get involved in the campaign. A new section of Ben & Jerry’s Web site is dedicated to the initiative. And Cohen and Greenfield have set out on a multi-city tour to carry the message.

“I think that business is the most powerful force in the country,” Cohen said. “When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just in its narrow self interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made.”

That’s long been the view of Cohen and Greenfield, but they believed it became little more than a marketing ploy after Unilever took over six years ago. So they let the company go its own way, albeit with their names and pictures still on the packaging.

Then Walt Freese joined as chief executive of Ben & Jerry’s a year and a half ago. He called the founders and began a series of meetings with them. He laid out his ideas for some new forms of social activism, which since the acquisition had included expanding the policy of buying products from farmers who advocate sustainable agriculture.

Eventually, Freese proposed the new campaign, and Cohen and Greenfield were back in the fold.

“As long as the company is going to do meaningful actions that have a strong social benefit, I’m happy to support it and help,” Cohen said.

Freese said Ben & Jerry’s under Unilever has always been committed to the three-part mission established under Cohen and Greenfield: high-quality products, profits and social responsibility. But it had lost its edge, he said.

“There was always the commitment on the part of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, post-acquisition, to honor the social mission and to do things that are true to the social mission,” Freese said in an interview. “What got lost over time, initially, was that Ben and Jerry had not just honored the social mission, they had committed themselves to being leaders, had committed themselves to being activists. Ben & Jerry’s was less courageous for a period of time, post-acquisition.”

Now, that mission is back, enough to cause some stress at Unilever corporate headquarters as in the case of the Ben & Jerry’s campaign to raise awareness about global warming. But, when Unilever took over, executives at the Vermont company were told to keep the parent “on the outer edge of its comfort zone,” Freese said.

“There are times we keep them at their outer edge, and there are times they think we are pushing them over the edge,” he said. “We think that’s our job at Ben & Jerry’s.”