The article is written by Heather Landy of Quartz Daily Brief (firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to follow their well-presented news summaries).
- I share this article as an example of the changing nature of business rather than supporting a particular perspective
- Business – more and more – is being asked to consider its role in shaping society
- Rather than obligation, my encouragement is to see this trend as an opportunity: businesses that are societally relevant, over time, will outcompete businesses that are not.
The founders of Ben & Jerry’s may be known as hippie throwbacks, but in many ways, they were ahead of their time. From their earliest days making ice cream in Vermont, they cared passionately about supporting sustainable agriculture, paying a living wage, and speaking out on social issues that on the surface seemed unconnected to their product.
Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield put those principles at risk with the company’s controversial sale in 2000 to Unilever, the global consumer products giant. But in the 20-plus years since, the mission-driven brand has largely stuck to its core values while keeping the peace with its corporate overlords. Until now.
This week, under pressure from pro-Palestinian activists and Ben & Jerry’s own board, the company announced it would stop selling ice cream in the Israeli-occupied territories, saying it was “inconsistent with our values” to do business there. But the brand, along with Unilever in its own statement, indicated it would continue to operate in Israel proper.
That’s where things get tricky. Because the Ben & Jerry’s board, which is tasked with safeguarding the brand’s social mission—and was guaranteed its independence at the time of the Unilever acquisition—says it never agreed to the decision to stay in Israel. By weighing in “on an issue directly related to Ben & Jerry’s social mission and brand integrity” without the directors’ approval, the board now says that both Unilever and the Ben & Jerry’s CEO (a Unilever veteran) “are in violation of the spirit and the letter” of the acquisition agreement hammered out two decades ago.
Ben & Jerry’s controversial move has resurfaced old questions about the politics of doing business in the Middle East and the effectiveness of boycotts. But it also has turned up new questions about the boundaries for missions and values in a corporate environment—a topic long familiar to Ben & Jerry’s observers, but only recently relevant to an increasing number of mainstream companies.
Denying ice cream to anyone in the Middle East won’t bring peace to the region. But Unilever and the board of Ben & Jerry’s will at least succeed in showing the world the current limits on conscious capitalism.