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Ben & Jerry & Unilever

Ben & Jerry & Unilever

Editor’s Note: We’re so grateful to be able to share this piece with you. It comes from Jeffrey Hollender, Chief Inspired Protagonist, co-founder, and Executive Chairperson of Seventh Generation. 

by Jeffrey Hollender

Recently, my close friend, Walt Freese, stepped down after eight years as the leader of Vermont’s famous ice cream maker, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc. There was no sign of discontent in the announcement, but one can imagine that life caught between two less-than-happy founding visionaries and a global packaged goods giant had its challenging moments.

I was reminded of this while reading an article in the Financial Times that brought to life the age-old debate about whether you can happily situate a deeply values based business inside the belly of a global corporate giant.

Jonathan Moules, the Financial Times reporter, quoted Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield saying, “Being owned by a large multinational group can seriously hamper an entrepreneur’s drive for social change.” The pair was in London to promote a plan to make all Ben & Jerry’s European products fully fair-trade compliant by the end of 2011, followed by everything they make for the rest of the world in 2013. Ben was also quoted as saying that progress on the fair trade pledge would have been achieved faster if the business had not had to answer to timid managers at Unilever. “As we got into larger and larger operations, we have got middle-level managers that are risk averse and the test becomes if other companies have not done something then we are not going to do it either.”

Jerry noted in the same story that, “Ben and I now work in the company but we have no real responsibility, and we have no authority.”

So — all you responsible entrepreneurs on the prowl for some large company to either:

a) embrace you and help scale up your business;
b) pay you a gigantic sum so you can retire to Costa Rica; or
c) allow you to infiltrate their culture spreading the gospel of justice and sustainability — take heed to this cautionary tale.

If you want to achieve and maintain a meaningful depth of ethical behavior at your company, you’re probably wise to avoid the temptations of a merger or buy-out and go it alone. In my experience, that’s the road lined with the least amount of compromise and heartache, and the most freedom to pursue your own vision of the seven principles of responsibility I recently outlined in The Responsibility Revolution, the book Bill Breen and I wrote. As Ben and Jerry’s experience shows, having to answer to a huge corporate parent often isn’t the answer you were ultimately looking for.


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photo credit: thanks to mollypop via flickr

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7:57AM PDT on Apr 22, 2010

Haven't read "THE RESPONSIBILITY REVOLUTION' will though.I will use it as a foundation before ever starting business classes,something I know nothing about.I still clean with toothpaste.have to comment to askswifty about that.

3:50AM PDT on Apr 14, 2010

Thank you for your links connor.


6:14PM PDT on Apr 9, 2010

thanks! for anyone who's interested here are some other great sites to click for good causes

6:13PM PDT on Apr 9, 2010

thanks! for anyone who's interested here are some other great sites to click for good causes

10:41AM PDT on Apr 8, 2010

I'd like to try one of these days Seventh Generation. I had coupons for this product. I know it's enco/environmentally friendly and good for the planet. I'm tired of this toxic chemical hazardous harmful dangerous fatal lethal products that you have to keep out of reach of children and pets.....

7:08AM PDT on Mar 30, 2010


10:00PM PDT on Mar 29, 2010


11:17PM PDT on Mar 28, 2010

I wish that people weren't so selfish :(

10:47PM PDT on Mar 28, 2010

As an ethical consumer, I find myself looking for the next satisfactory product: locally made gelato is a WIN during the summer.

1:18PM PDT on Mar 28, 2010

just another example of a great company being swallowed up by the beast, in this case Unilever. Gone are the days of mom and pop stores, diversity of products and the hope for the American Dream. I don't think that exists anymore.

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