Rushkoff's Thought Virus #5: The Ben & Jerry's Syndrome

Our friend Douglas Rushkoff has posted the fifth excerpt from his new book, "Get Back In The Box: Innovation from the Inside Out," that will hit shelves in just a couple of weeks. In this bit, Doug takes a hard look at Ben and Jerry's approach to doing well by doing good. From the excerpt:

Questioning the ethical commitment of a company such as Ben and Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream may be as outlandish as questioning the long-term profitability of a Wal-Mart. But just as grounded. The company was started with end-to-end social responsibility foremost in mind. It is committed to using organic ingredients, grown in a sustainable manner, from local farmers wherever possible, and with continuous monitoring of environmental impact. The company's "social mission coordinator" oversees an employee-led grant-making program, and the human resources department is one of the most caring and lauded in any industry.

But when push comes to shove, we have to acknowledge that Ben and Jerry's makes ice cream in a nation where 64.5 percent of the population 20 or older is overweight, 30.5 percent are obese, and type II diabetes is at an all-time high. According to the World Health Organization, obesity-related illnesses claim more than 500,000 lives each year. Ben and Jerry's chocolate-dipped waffle cones each pack 320 calories and 10 grams of fat before any ice cream is added. Its homespun ads showing cows on clean pastures make ice cream look positively healthy. Does encouraging charitable giving, environmental responsibility, and fair labor standards compensate for the obesity encouraged by its products and marketing campaigns?

The contradiction just doesn't stand; and neither could Ben and Jerry's. With a sagging stock price and exhausted executives, the company agreed to be acquired by Unilever in 2000. Voicing a widespread sentiment, Governor Howard Dean told Reuters, "It would be a shame if it were sucked into the corporate homogenization that's taking over the planet." Ben and Jerry attempted to reassure their remaining fans, explaining that theirs would remain a separate company with its own governing board. Of course, the truly radical move would have been to infect Unilever with a bit of Ben and Jerry's ethos from the inside out. By agreeing to be sectioned off, behemoth Unilever's standard operating procedures could remain unchallenged. Meanwhile, Ben and Jerry's adds yet another layer of contradiction to its already ambiguous mission: a socially conscious company selling sugar and fat to Americans, in the service of a Big Food conglomerate whose own practices Ben and Jerry's was originally born to contest.