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Cause Celeb: Jerry Greenfield

Ben & Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield talks about the ice-cream company's philanthropic work in an interview on  "Cause Celeb," a monthly feature  of "Give and Take,"'s ongoing special coverage of philanthropy.
Jerry Greenfield
Jerry Greenfield

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation?

A. The foundation is the charitable arm that gets funded by the company. It was started in 1985. When it first began, it was set up to receive 7.5 percent of the company’s pretax profits, which was the highest percentage of any publicly held company at the time. The company continues to fund the foundation at the same level. The foundation gives away money to grassroots, social-justice and environmental-justice organizations. The interesting thing is that the decisions are made by employee groups at the company.

Q. How did the foundation relationship change when you sold the company?

A. The foundation relationship with the business is the same, so that hasn’t changed at all: It still operates as a separate entity. The company was bought in 2000 by this large conglomerate called Unilever, which is a large consumer-goods company. When they purchased the company, they made a commitment to continue to fund the foundation for 10 years and they said they would look at it past then. So we are in the [seventh] year now and so far it’s been operating exactly the same.

Q. One of your campaigns is to make sure your products use Fair Trade Certified ingredients in your products. How do you go about choosing your campaigns?

A. I am happy to say that I have nothing to do with it, but even though I don’t know the answer to the question, I would be happy to try to answer it! There is a range of things the company gets involved in. I think what Ben & Jerry’s does on the one hand is say, “How can we best use the power of our business?” and the real power of a business I think comes not from the small percentage of your profits that you can give away, but it’s really in looking at all the normal business functions. Whether it’s how you source ingredients or how you do manufacturing or how you do your marketing and to see if there is a way to have social components or environmental components be part of those. 

For an ice-cream company, obviously we use a lot of different ingredients and a lot of different flavoring. So you look at your major ingredients which would be flavorings, but also milk and cream and see if there’s a way to have those be more consciously sourced. So, for things like coffee or vanilla or chocolate, using Fair Trade ingredients is a way to essentially not be trying to take advantage of your suppliers but saying our success and your success should be tied in together. It’s not a real a radical thing, it’s just paying a fair price to people that are rising ingredients.

Q. Is there a campaign you are most proud of that has seen great success?

A. Early on the company took the issue of military spending. This was years ago, during the height of the Cold War. Ben & Jerry’s came out with an ice-cream bar on a stick which was called a “Peace Pop.” The company used the text on the packaging to talk about peace through understanding activities and taking 1 percent of our country’s military budget and to use it for cultural exchanges, so that people in different countries could know each other and not want to blow each other up. And at that time, this was in the late ’80s, it was actually quite controversial. The company was very concerned that it might be alienating potential customers and it might be alienating grocers or distributors.  We went ahead and did it anyway. I don’t know that it sold more ice cream or caused the company to sell less ice cream, but it really set Ben & Jerry’s up as a company that was willing to look outside of what was just going to make it the most money and what was instead going to be helpful to a larger community.

Q. What were you thinking when you knew that it could potentially set your company back and you still went forward?

A. We felt like it was the right thing to do. You know, business is really a very powerful force in our society. It’s actually the most powerful force. It’s become more powerful than religion and governments and you can see that influence when you look at campaign contributions and elections and control of the media through ownership and influence on legislation thought lobbying. And we just felt like with business having this incredibly powerful role that business needs to be looking more at what is good for itself. Business is essentially like a neighbor in your community, only it happens to be a very wealthy neighbor. With the increasing social problems in our country, business does not have the luxury to just sit back and say “Our job is to raise money and it’s everyone else’s job to try and help make things better.”  

Q. One of your campaigns was to “Put Red and Blue aside.  Think Green.”  People still don’t believe in global warming.  Do you ever get frustrated?

A. You know, I get frustrated with our country’s administration, which is really the people who are not acknowledging global warming. I mean, it’s accepted by scientists around the world, scientists in our country and it’s accepted by every country around the world with the exception of the United States. Just because it’s not this dire emergency where if we don’t make these huge changes we’re going to drop off the end of the Earth tomorrow, people are content to say, “Well, maybe it’s not such a big deal.”  But the United States is the biggest polluter and it’s the biggest user of energy and we really should be taking a leadership role, instead of dragging our heels. Where is the most powerful superpower in the world on an issue that affects everyone?

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

A. I’m a pretty laid-back kind of guy. What I’ve always wanted to do is set up situations in our company where if people who worked there needed help, we would try to help them and at the same token if the company needed help from people, they would help us. A kind of give and take.

Q. Ben & Jerry’s is known for having flavors with real pop-culture overtones (Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, One Sweet World, Half Baked …).  When did you decide to incorporate this popular culture into ice-cream flavors?

A. You know, probably the first flavor was Cherry Garcia, which was not really a decision we made. We got an anonymous postcard from some Deadheads who suggested we make a flavor called Cherry Garcia because it would be a big hoot for the fans, they said. So we kind of just went ahead and did it.  For us it was a tribute to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, it was not a way to try and get some endorsement from them, but it was our way of thanking them for what they had contributed. I think it met with a lot of success and we tried to then find other groups that had the same sort of lifestyle and idea of giving back and caring for the community. 

So we got in touch with Phish, a band from Vermont; some people in the company knew them. We got in touch with Dave Matthews Band for their work with global warming. We’ve tried to have a component of this lifestyle or music also be connected with issues. Phish has been very involved with the cleanup of Lake Champlain. Money that has gone to Jerry Garcia for the Jerry Garcia flavor has gone to the Rex Foundation. So it’s a way for us to combine having really unusual flavors with these “rock stars,” for lack of a better word. But also, their passion in being involved in social issues and environmental issues.

Q. Out of all the work that you’ve done, do you have a really moving experience?

A. You know, a lot of people say “thank you,” which is great. The funniest thing is when you’ll get kids who come up and meet you with their parents and the kids will say something like, “Oh, I thought they were dead!” So there is always that to put sort of put everything in perspective.

For more information on the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, visit