Their fame rapidly spread. Like Newmans Own, the food business started just a few years later by actor Paul Newman and his long-time pal, writer A.E. Hotchner (whom we interviewed a year ago for this spot), the business started as a purely local enterprise and became an international phenomenon.
In 1988, Ben and Jerry received the Corporate Giving Award from the Council on Economic Priorities for donating 7.5 percent of its pretax income to nonprofit organizations through the Ben & Jerry Foundation (the award was presented by Joanne Woodward, aka Mrs. Paul Newman), and were named U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year by the Small Business Administration, in a ceremony conducted by President Reagan in the Rose Garden.
The turn of the century saw an event whose irony was lost neither on the companys legion of fans, nor on its founders, when in August of 2000, Ben & Jerrys was purchased by the multinational Anglo-Dutch company Unilever; the company went to some lengths to assure its customers that it would continue Ben & Jerrys dedication to community involvement and social causes.
Since then, operating as a private citizen with an extraordinary résumé, Ben has continued to stand as a shining example of a business philosophy network marketers hold near and dear: that altruism and success work best in tandem, rather than in conflict, and that doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive propositions. JDM
The 90s already seem so far away! What have you been doing since 2000?
Ive been focused on an organization called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Were a group of 800 business leaders around the country, from owners of small businesses, to salespeople, to mid-level management, to CEOs, who are concerned about national budget priorities and how the Federal government is spending our tax money.
We came together around the idea that it doesnt make sense that the richest country in the world should also have the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world. We started analyzing the budget of congress in the same way that we analyzed the budgets of our businesses.
Heres what we discovered: during the Cold War, the Pentagon grew to consume over 50 percent of the discretionary budget, reaching a level of about $350 billion a year. The Soviet Union was spending more, so we spent more, and so it went the arms race.
When the Soviet Union imploded, Russias military budget went down to something like $70 billion per yearbut ours stayed up there. Its a classic case of a self-propagating bureaucracy; today it has risen to $420 billion a year.
We put together a board of military advisors retired admirals and generalsand asked if this level of military spending made sense. They said it could be cut by at least $60 billion a year.
Thats quite a chunk of change.
It sure is. $60 billion a year would be enough to rebuild all of our schools over a period of ten years; and in addition, to provide health care for every kid who currently doesnt have any; and in addition, to reduce our need for oil by 50 percent over the next ten years; and in addition, to provide for the six million kids around the world every year who are dying of starvation
And youre not talking either/or, youre talking and.
Exactly! And in addition to all that, you could provide job training for most of the people who get laid off each year. And in addition to that [laughs] there would be enough left over to put $10 billion a year toward reducing the federal deficit.
Heres the $64 billion question: Whos hearing you? Is anyone listening?
The population is listening. Hardly anyone really has any idea how Congress is spending our money. Until I got into this, I didnt know!
We did a poll, and heres what we found: that $60 billion figure is a lot more conservative than most citizens would actually demand. Once you show people how the budget is currently being spent, they overwhelmingly say they want to shift about $130 billion out of the Pentagon into social needs.
And by the way, this response cuts across normal political and ideological definitions. Republicans and Democrats alike respond this way. When people find out how their money is being spent, they dont like it! The priorities of the budget do not reflect the priorities of the people who supply the money.
How are you focusing your efforts to make a difference?
Were taking this message to the media and to politicians.
For example, we just launched a campaign focusing our efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire, on a year-in year-out basis, so that we develop a constituency of voters in those states who care about this issue. That way, when the Presidential candidates come through every four years, theyll be forced to address it.
Were just putting the finishing touches on a piece of legislation that calls on the Federal government to make that shift in its spending. Most of the money covered by these shifts would end up going back to be spent at the state level on education, health care and job training.
Another project of ours is True Majority, which is the name of our online political action organization. We have about 500,000 members there, and anyone can joinyou dont have to be a businessperson to be a member.
When you talk about business being the strongest shaping force in society, it sounds like what youre describing is an example of that: leading businesspeople taking the initiative to influence public policy.
Thats exactly right, and as businesspeople, were not exactly what youd call the usual suspects on this issue. But not coming at it from a political or ideological position; were coming at it from the point of view of fiscal rationality and fiscal conservatism.
Ben Cohen, conservative how about that?!
You make the point that your emphasis is explicitly non-partisan, that it goes beyond politics and toward common sense.
Thats exactly right; in fact, were calling the legislation The Commonsense Budget Act.
Since the purchase of Ben & Jerrys in 2000, has that transaction freed up your life in ways, opened up new opportunities for you in terms of your own mission?
To tell you the truth, it really hasnt changed me or what I do all that much; things have been about the same. I was working on these issues through Ben & Jerrys before, and now Im working on them through Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Its the same work, just through a different venue.
In the wake of Enron and MCI, the old question surfaced again: does money corrupt? Does achieving large sums of money tend to seduce one from the path of right action?
I dont think so. I think it completely depends on where your values were to begin with.
If you were interested in social justice before you had money, I think you will still be interested in social justice when you do have money. If you didnt have an interest in social justice in the first place, then getting a bunch of money wont give you that interest.
When we spoke with Anita Roddick [Lead Story, Sept 03], she talked eloquently about the social impact business can havewhich is your story, too. During the 90s, consumers began caring much more about corporations social record. Where are we on that curve now? Are we still more aware, or going backwards?
I think were getting more aware. As an example, there is the outstanding work that Rainforest Action Network did with Citicorp and Home Depot. They were concerned about Home Depot using old growth wood, and Citicorp was financing projects that resulted in cutting down old growth forests. In both cases, they were able to get the corporations to change their practices.
So I think corporations are getting more sensitive to the impact they have. Theyve always been sensitive to public opinion, but I think that now, especially with the Internet, its been more possible to educate the public about the actions of these large companies and to organize public opinion. As a result, theyre starting to become considerably more careful and concerned.
So many of the big corporations are changing their way of doing business to become more environmentally sound, to become more concerned about human rights issues and to not exploit their workers and producers.
You have said, Promoting the general welfare has never been a part of businesss reason for being. Do you think this might be changingthat promoting the general good may actually become the raison detre of the business world?
Well that would certainly be a wonderful thing!
Doing well and doing good are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Our experience at Ben & Jerrys certainly showed us that being socially responsible is good for business.
Business already spends billions of dollars every year on public relations and marketing. Whats the purpose of all that expenditure? Essentially, to try to get customers to feel good about those businesses. But the reality is, you can accomplish that objective by actually doing good things for people, as opposed to just making up stories or coming up with persuasive ads that make people feel like youre doing good things!
Heres one reason this is good business, too: When you use your power as a business to improve the quality of life in the community, that builds bonds with your customers based on shared values, which are incredibly strong bonds. These bonds last, as opposed to the ephemeral, one-time spike you might get in sales by coming up with a good advertising campaign.
This is what you call linked prosperity?
Right; the idea of linked prosperity is that as your business prospers, your employees and your community should also prosper. Its exactly what we were just talking about. When this happens, the employees and the community naturally want to help that business, because its sharing its prosperity with them. It puts people together into a symbiotic relationshipand that works pretty well for all concerned. I think our experience at Ben & Jerrys illustrated that, and I think the experience of millions of people throughout the world illustrates that, too.
Do you see a shift in recent years, with more power coming into the hands of the individual entrepreneur?
The fact is, small businesses are the businesses that create the most jobs in our economy. Thats the direction were going in.
When you look at some of the backlash against the large businesses, like Wal-Mart and Enron, you can see that people do want to favor small businesses when they have the chance to do so. People dont like the impersonal way so many big businesses conduct themselves, and would prefer to have the more personal relationships they can have with small businesses.
You talk about the importance of putting your mission first in business; how can the individual, home-based entrepreneur implement that idea?
One way would be to drive a Prius [Toyotas gas/electric hybrid autoEd.]! Another way would be to put a bumper sticker on that Prius that talks about the Federal budget.
Heres an example of a way you might implement mission first: an individual network marketer might partner with a progressive organ- ization thats working, say, for economic justice or fair trade, or for improving education. They might negotiate an arrangement so that this organization allows them to come set up a table at their meeting, and in exchange, the network marketer gives that organization a percentage of all the sales to the members of that organization.
Whatever you do, and however you do it, the idea is to use your voice. It is to recognize that you have a voice, and that whether or not that voice is silent or speaks up, is completely up to you.
Altruism Is Good Business
Religion was originally the most powerful entity. Then power shifted,
and nation-states became the institutions of greatest power. Today the
most powerful force is business.
From Ben & Jerrys Double Dip: How to Run a Value-Led Business and Make Money, Too (1997), by Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen