I7. From Ice-Cream Socials to "Social Responsibility"


As has been noted, from the very beginning of Cohen and Greenfield’s careers as capitalists they wanted to achieve a sense of community by using the business as their catalyst. They began the only way they could: by giving away free ice cream. Soon they were holding movie festivals and began an annual community celebration called the "Fall Down" (held in the autumn season, of course). But as they became more economically successful and, hence, busier, the two characteristics of Ben & Jerry’s social program that were emphasized (and that equally displayed the commitment of the company to a non-rational ethos) were the amount of the donations they began to give and the recipients of those donations:


In the process of preparing the prospectus for the [stock] offering, the company formalized…policies that had become a cornerstone of how we defined what a socially responsible business was. The first involved corporate donations. From their earliest days at the gas station, Ben & Jerry had been committed to running a business in a way that gave back to the community. Strapped as they were for cash, their efforts usually took the form of free ice cream cones or low-budget celebratory events. As the company became more profitable, we began to make more and more cash contributions to community groups and arts organizations. At the time, we still didn’t have a formalized budget or operating plan, but we were loosely trying to earmark an amount equal to about five percent of our pretax profits for these donations. To institutionalize the donations policy, we created the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization…The stated goal of the foundation was to fund projects that were models for social change, or that were infused with a spirit of generosity and hopefulness. It sought to fund proposals that approached problems in nontraditional ways, which enhanced people’s quality of life, and which supported community celebrations. There was an intended bias toward weird and offbeat projects that were unlikely to get funding from traditional sources" (Lager, 1994: 126-127; my emphasis).


Cohen wasn’t even satisfied with the five percent pre-tax donation figure. He wanted to make it ten percent. Lager disagreed. "We hardly seemed to be in a position to double the amount of money we were giving away to nonprofit organizations each year. By comparison to corporate America, we were already off the charts" (1994: 127). Corporate America was giving, on average, a figure of 2.1% of pre-tax profits to non-profit organizations, most of which were arts organizations or the United Way (Human Resources Network, 1975: 25). "I also pointed out that the company would need to reinvest its profits in order to continue to grow," says Lager. "The stock offering, if successful, would address our immediate cash needs, but we wouldn’t be able to go back to the market year after year. Future investments would have to funded internally, and the increased bite out of our bottom line would make it difficult to do that. Those were all rational arguments, but Ben wasn’t buying any of them. ‘Five percent just isn’t enough, ‘ he said. An hour or so after we’d begun the discussion, we agreed to split the difference" (1994: 127). So the donations policy now nearly quadrupled that of average corporate America.


There was no question at that point in time, roughly six or seven years into the development of the business, that Ben & Jerry’s was not going to be a typical corporation with respect to where their profits were going. While one criticism of the business has been that the social program is simply a marketing tool, Lager insists that "the motivation for giving back had always been genuine. At the same time, it was proving to be an effective marketing strategy. There was no doubt that our customers were more inclined to buy our ice cream and support our business because of how we, in turn, supported the community" (1994: 126).


Not only was Ben & Jerry’s being conscious of the consumer, but they recognized that consumers themselves were becoming more conscious of the power they had, that they were ready and willing to understand that the economic sphere of life was not separate from other arenas of action and that economics was indeed not solely a rational endeavor that was devoid of values and politics.


Joel Makower, author of The E Factor (1993), a book that discusses the rise of environmental consciousness with respect to business, notes that "the strongest pressures [for businesses to take greater control of environmental issues] is not coming from Washington, but from customers - other businesses and the consuming public - and competitors, many of whom are striving for a ‘greener-than-thou’ image. That’s speeding up change and raising the level of discourse from symbolic to substantive" (14). Indeed, with the new awareness that was gained in the 1960’s social movements regarding the fact that the market was centered around only one consideration, profits, consumers were asking for a profound change in the way business was done. This request was reinforced by the large amount of media attention given to environmental issues in business (Makower, 1993: 11-12). So, the roots of the recent movement in corporate social responsibility, the "new corporate concept", can be seen as coming from both consumer and corporate interests. This mutual involvement on the part of public and private players continues to power the engine of change. At this point, however, it is important to see how Ben & Jerry’s ideas about the meaning of social responsibility evolved over the years.


In 1987, in response to increasing concern regarding the direction the company was headed in as it continued to grow, the board of directors at Ben & Jerry’s concretized the values inherent in the early projects of the company into the Statement of Mission. The statement was an effort to institutionalize the idea of the "new corporate concept". "As the company gets bigger," said Cohen in an all-staff meeting, "the mission will ensure that we’re all moving in the same direction. It provides a framework for how everyday decisions should be made throughout the company" (Lager, 1994: 189). Several projects followed the arrival of the mission statement. The first was "Peace Pops", a chocolate/popsicle confectionery that came about in response to the introduction of a similar product by their major competitor, Häagen-Dazs.

While Peace Pops were on one hand a response to marketing pressures, Cohen took it upon himself to integrate a "socially responsible" aspect into the release of the product as well. He "decided he was going to start a nonprofit organization called ‘1% for Peace’ [a proposal originally offered by Paul Snyder, a friend of the company’s lawyer, in 1983]. According to Ben, the organization would try to get Congress to pass a law allocating one percent of the annual military budget toward activities focusing on peace through understanding. The organization would be overseen by a blue-ribbon board of directors. The idea of spearheading the 1% for Peace campaign was quite a leap for the previously apolitical Ben, who had tended in the past to avoid even the basics of participatory democracy like voting. He was beginning, however, to see that as founder of Ben & Jerry’s he had greater reach and influence than he had as an individual, especially as we established a reputation for being an innovative socially responsible business" (Lager, 1994: 174).


The second initiative involved a less ambitious venture - a "no-brainer", as Chico Lager called it. It was an attempt to use the Greyston Bakery of New York City as a supplier. "The bakery hired the homeless and the hard-core unemployable to make cheesecakes and fancy torts that sold in gourmet shops and restaurants throughout the New York area. Profits from the bakery were used to provide transitional housing, counseling, and training for its employees, all intended to break the cycle of homelessness" (1994: 186). While some problems arose in accommodating Ben & Jerry’s large orders, the relationship succeeded and continues today.


Two other social mission projects in 1988 arose directly from the institutionalization of the mission statement. The first, keeping with the same motive that inspired 1% for Peace, was an attempt to open a scoop shop in the Soviet Union. "The idea was to use the profits from the shop to fund cultural exchanges between the two countries." Ben & Jerry’s now has three licensed scoop shops in Russia. "Closer to home, [we] created a program that put a profit-making business - one of our franchised scoop stores - to work with a non-profit organization. Our first ‘Partnershop’ was opened in Ithaca, New York, by The Learning Web, a community group that matched up kids one-on-one with mentors so they could get real-world skills. The Ben & Jerry’s shop, run by Learning Web spin-off called Youth Scoops, Inc., provided job experience and business training for kids under twenty-one" (Lager, 1994: 188). In 1992, a new Partnershop "opened on 125th Street in Harlem. The store is run by Joe Holland, an African-American who graduated from Harvard Law School. Seventy-five percent of the profits of the store will go toward a nearby drug-counseling center and homeless shelter that Holland helped found eight years ago [in 1984]. Residents of the shelter are employed at the store, giving them an opportunity, as at the Greyston Bakery, to break the cycle of homelessness and return to normal life." In 1993, Ben & Jerry’s began buying apple pies for one of their new frozen yogurts from LaSoul Bakery in Red Bank, New Jersey. "LaSoul has its roots in the ministry of Reverend James W. Carter, who started to offer counseling and guidance to recovering alcohol and drug addicts in 1985" (Lager, 1994: 232).


Also, the end of the Cold War changed the ideological stance that the "1% for Peace" issue used as its premise, and "it changed its name to Business Partnership for Peace, and, in 1993, was merged into Businesses for Social Responsibility…which counts such Fortune 500 companies as Reebok and Stride-Rite among its members" (Lager, 1994: 231). Ben & Jerry’s decided to begin a new focus with a more domestic concern. The "Call for Kids" was established in the place of "1% for Peace", as it was decided by the board that "the social mission was to take a single focus area and integrate it into the company’s marketing and promotions" (Lager, 1994: 223). The "Call for Kids" promotes the Children’s Defense Fund’s ‘Leave No Child Behind’ campaign. This campaign fights for the rights of children, largely through political means. Most recently they have attempted to stop the downgrading of welfare money (specifically, Aid to Families with Dependent Children) received by the states from the federal government from "entitlement" standing (by which money appropriated toward welfare are disbursed in relation to the need - more in times and locations where natural disasters strike or there is a recession) to "block grants" (by which a fixed lump sum is dumped in the lap of the state at one time). "These actions represent a fundamental shift in our nation’s commitment to children," says the Children’s Defense Fund. "The federal government no longer will be the protector of last resort for hungry, disabled, poor, abused, and neglected boys and girls. Instead, it will pass responsibility to the 50 states with far less federal funding to help do the job and no flexibility to respond to increasing needs in times of economic downturn or disaster."


All of these initiatives are representative of the efforts that Ben & Jerry’s has made to contribute back not only to the community that supports the production of their ice-cream, but the society as a whole. Importantly, the community has grown for them to an international scope as they have expanded into new markets. These later social initiatives continue to encompass a dimension of "giving" that appeared for them as they began to grow larger - a strong emphasis on politicization in their programs. Social responsibility to Ben & Jerry’s means doing not only what may traditionally be known as ‘social work’, i.e. ‘compassionate’ giving to the unfortunate through Partnershops or donations to non-profit organizations aimed at counseling or guidance. It also means making an attempt to change the larger, more well-rooted and institutionalized structures of society that need at least as much attention. "1% for Peace", the "Call for Kids" and the scoop shops in Russia are all politically motivated social programs. So are the pamphlets that they distribute through their franchised scoop shops that offer "50 Ways To Get Political" and proffer "Caring Capitalism". This straightforward attempt of a business to actively support a political opinion that does not support the culture of traditional business operations, but rather offers an alternative to an overly-rationalized political economy, is what is perhaps most striking about Ben & Jerry’s program of social responsibility.


But the social program is not the sole arena of Ben & Jerry’s non-rationality. It has also been expressed in the day-to-day exchanges between the workers. The subtitle of Lager’s book is "How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor" (my emphasis). This sense of humor, and an accompanying sense of relaxed demeanor, began with Cohen and Greenfield themselves, primarily as stress relief, but it became a defining aspect of the company. The humor was used not only for laughs, but also as a deliberate satire of the culture that they grated against. For example, during their first year of business, they held the POPCDBZWE - the Penny Off Per Celsius Degree Below Zero Winter Extravaganza. This obviously overdone, comical acronym is clearly a take-off on "the sale", a common technique of corporate culture designed to lure buyers in times of over-abundance or low profits. With regard to promoting their "philosophy of fun", on the first "Fall Down" flyer (their community festival held in Autumn; cf. p.45), next to Cohen’s quote regarding business supporting the community, Greenfield’s credo read: "If it’s not fun, why do it?". At that same event, Ben Cohen presented himself as "Habeeni Ben Coheeni, the noted mystic" and commenced a stunt by which Jerry (dressed in safari garb) would smash a concrete block that assistants had placed on the belly of Habeeni, who was suspended prone, amazingly enough, between two chairs. This was genuinely funny stuff; that lightheartedness infiltrated the business early and stayed with them for quite some time.


In 1988, in response to pressures that were building between managers and owners regarding the direction of the social mission, the company started a committee called the "Joy Gang" to encourage having fun in the workplace. The Joy Gang was responsible for projects (such as "Elvis Day") that lightened the mood of the employees at the plant. As Lager says, "[A] part of our culture was that Ben & Jerry’s was a company where you could be yourself. We embraced diverse lifestyles, people could dress the way they wanted, and you could personalize your workspace however you saw fit. My office was filled with windup toys and autographed pictures of J.R. Ewing and Mr. T, my personal cultural icons" (1994: 145).


My own interview with the company’s public relations representative, Mitch Curren (whose official title is "Research Relationist and Info P.R. Queen"!) revealed that the relaxed atmosphere regarding personal lifestyle was a significant reason for her switch from teaching English to working at Ben & Jerry’s: "Not having to put on a costume that limits me is the main reason I’m here". This ethic of playfulness and willingness to allow people within the organization to express themselves as individuals is a very important aspect of Ben & Jerry’s. Their "play ethic" lies contrary to many more "serious" businesses, that enforce a conformity upon their employees that begins with how they dress, but does not end there.


According to Laura Martz, play is diametrically opposed to work in consumer capitalism:


Play will be defined here only loosely, as all that which is diametrically opposed to and excluded by work. To sustain itself, consumer capitalism relies on (1) the maintenance of an outdated survival imperative and work ethic, and (2) a totalizing commodification and consumerism, which necessitates work beyond perceived survival needs. Play has been diametrically opposed to work (defined as wage labor), coded as decadent within the sphere of rationality and radically excised. One's time off the clock is allegedly the proper realm of play. Yet under consumer capitalism this time is cleverly commandeered for other means as intrinsic to keeping the machine running as the activities engaged in under the watchful eye of the clock. Play is the refusal of regimentation, supervision and clocks. In this sense, play is a precondition for resistance, which demands time and energy for spontaneity, contemplation, communication, and unity. Play must be recovered (1995).


The willingness of Ben & Jerry’s to adopt a "play ethic" was a testimonial to the kind of capitalism they sought to achieve. However, while it would be nice to say that Ben & Jerrys’ operating philosophy was "all play and no work", that unfortunately is not the case. What other changes have taken place in the organization, then, as they have grown and changed? Have hints of rationalization seeped into the business and, if so, what is their effect? In other words, as Ritzer puts it, is "Ben & Jerry’s…be[ing] vigilant to traces of McDonaldization and demonstrat[ing] that it can both be successful and ward off McDonaldization over the long haul"? (1993: 177). Part II of this discussion will examine how Ben & Jerry’s has indeed become more rationalized with its rapid growth and how "warding off" McDonaldization has proven difficult.


Part II: Next Section - Rationality Creeps In

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