In 1977, at the age of 26, Ben Cohen left school and decided to go into the food business with a pal from his Long Island junior high days, Jerry Greenfield. The two chose Burlington, Vermont, for their location (it was a great college town in desperate need of an ice cream parlor), and Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream Parlor opened for business in a renovated gas station in May, 1978. Ben & Jerry’s soon became known throughout Vermont, both for the quality and unusual flavors of its product line and for the owners’ community-oriented approach to business, an approach distinguished both by a strong money-where-your-mouth-is commitment to social needs and issues, and by their outrageous and freewheeling dedication to fun and hijinks. (For example: after the stock crash of Oct. 19, 1987, Cohen and Greenfield sent the Ben & Jerry’s scoop vehicle down to Wall Street in NYC to serve free scoops of “That’s Life” and “Economic Crunch” ice creams.)

Their fame rapidly spread. Like Newman’s 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 company’s legion of fans, nor on its founders, when in August of 2000, Ben & Jerry’s was purchased by the multinational Anglo-Dutch company Unilever; the company went to some lengths to assure its customers that it would continue Ben & Jerry’s 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?

I’ve been focused on an organization called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. We’re 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 doesn’t 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.

Here’s 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, Russia’s military budget went down to something like $70 billion per year—but ours stayed up there. It’s 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 generals—and asked if this level of military spending made sense. They said it could be cut by at least $60 billion a year.

That’s 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 doesn’t 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 you’re not talking “either/or,” you’re 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.

Here’s the $64 billion question: Who’s 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 didn’t know!

We did a poll, and here’s 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 don’t 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?

We’re 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, they’ll be forced to address it.

We’re 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 join—you don’t 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 you’re describing is an example of that: leading businesspeople taking the initiative to influence public policy.

That’s exactly right, and as businesspeople, we’re not exactly what you’d call the usual suspects on this issue. But not coming at it from a political or ideological position; we’re coming at it from the point of view of fiscal rationality and fiscal conservatism.

Ben Cohen, conservative…how about that?!

[laughs]

You make the point that your emphasis is explicitly non-partisan, that it goes beyond politics and toward common sense.

That’s exactly right; in fact, we’re calling the legislation The Commonsense Budget Act.

Since the purchase of Ben & Jerry’s 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 hasn’t changed me or what I do all that much; things have been about the same. I was working on these issues through Ben & Jerry’s before, and now I’m working on them through Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. It’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t have an interest in social justice in the first place, then getting a bunch of money won’t give you that interest.

When we spoke with Anita Roddick [Lead Story, Sept ‘03], she talked eloquently about the social impact business can have—which 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 we’re 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. They’ve always been sensitive to public opinion, but I think that now, especially with the Internet, it’s been more possible to educate the public about the actions of these large companies and to organize public opinion. As a result, they’re 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 business’s reason for being.” Do you think this might be changing—that promoting the general good may actually become the raison d’etre 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 & Jerry’s certainly showed us that being socially responsible is good for business.

Business already spends billions of dollars every year on public relations and marketing. What’s 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 you’re doing good things!

Here’s 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. It’s exactly what we were just talking about. When this happens, the employees and the community naturally want to help that business, because it’s sharing its prosperity with them. It puts people together into a symbiotic relationship—and that works pretty well for all concerned. I think our experience at Ben & Jerry’s 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. That’s the direction we’re 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 don’t 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 [Toyota’s gas/electric hybrid auto—Ed.]! Another way would be to put a bumper sticker on that Prius that talks about the Federal budget.

Here’s an example of a way you might implement “mission first”: an individual network marketer might partner with a progressive organ- ization that’s 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.

You can see this reality echoed in major cities around the world: the oldest big, ornate building is a religious institution. The second-oldest big, ornate building is a governmental institution. And today, the biggest, most ornate buildings being built are commercial.

Today, business is the strongest influence in our society. It influences elections through campaign contributions; it influences legislation through lobbying; it influences the media through ownership; and it influences our everyday interactions as consumers and employees.

All of this is done in the narrow self-interest of business, without much concern for the welfare of society as a whole—and that is the major change. The purpose of religion and government was to promote the general welfare. But promoting the general welfare has never been a part of business’s reason for being.

Business people have traditionally said that business can’t concern itself with the needs of the broader society because it won’t be able to survive.
Our experience proves that’s just not true.

Most people would agree that there’s a spiritual part of our lives as individuals. Yet when a group of individuals gets together in the form of a business, all of a sudden they throw out that whole idea. We all know as individuals that spirituality—the exchange of love, energy, kindness, caring—exists. Just because the idea that the good you do comes back to you is written in the Bible and not in some business textbook doesn’t make it any less valid. We’re all interconnected. As we give we receive. As we help others we are helped in return. As your business supports the community, the community will support your business.

Most companies try to conduct their businesses in a spiritual vacuum. But the reality is, we’ll never actualize our spiritual concerns until we integrate them into business, which is where we spend most of our time, where our energy as human beings is organized in a synergistic way, and where the resources exist that allow us to be at our most powerful.

In our early days in business, the two of us used to be a hot ticket on the Rotary Club circuit in Vermont. They needed a speaker to lull their members to sleep as they digested their rubber chicken. We’d give our talk, they’d fall asleep. Then at the end someone would wake up, raise his hand, and say, “All this stuff you’re doing for the community—you’re just doing it because it’s good for business, aren’t you?” And we’d say, “No. It’s altruism.”

When we get that question now, we say, “Altruism is the old answer. The new answer is, it is good for business. If you want to be more profitable, why don’t you try it too?”

From Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip: How to Run a Value-Led Business and Make Money, Too (1997), by Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen