This excerpt from Chapter Five of Ice Cream Social describes a speech Ben Cohen gave at Harvard twenty years ago, long before “corporate social responsibility” became a buzzword. The full text of the speech is well worth reading, too.
In April 1994, Ben went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to receive the George S. Dively Award for Corporate Public Initiative. It was as close to the Nobel Prize as he was likely to get. Ben’s acceptance speech laid out his vision for business as a force for social change. “Corporations have been granted the right to become the major depositories and bestowers of wealth in our society,” he said. “With all of this power, there is just no way businesses can walk away from the world’s pressing problems . . . the narrow view of maximizing profits is simply unacceptable when business is directly and indirectly responsible for so many of our problems . . . business must be part of the solution, or there won’t be a solution.”
The Harvard elites squirmed in their seats, and Ben was delighted. He described the company’s campaign to combat bovine growth hormone in the face of legal pressure from Monsanto. He cited one study that estimated the government spent more on welfare for corporations than it did on welfare to the poor, and that the social costs of white-collar crime rivaled those of crime in the streets. While Ben & Jerry’s was far from perfect, he said, it was willing to take “a no-holds-barred look at ourselves” and publish the results for all to see. The company’s social reputation, he said, didn’t hurt its profitability—in fact, it was the key to its success.
“Could others do the same thing we are doing? Yes, and a growing number are,” Ben said. “But the numbers of companies are too few, and their size is too small. We need more companies engaged in pioneering work, so that the frontier of social responsibility gets pushed out even further. And we need bigger companies to get into the act . . . we need the Exxons, Toyotas, and Westinghouses.”
After the speech, Ben and Liz drove to Boston’s Logan Airport to get on separate planes. Liz was headed home, but Ben needed to go preach somewhere else. He gave her the engraved Tiffany crystal award, and halfway to her gate she dropped it. “I just laughed,” said Liz. “It was so fitting, given what Ben had just said to the crowd. When Ben heard, he laughed too. So I put the cracked stump of it up in my office to remind everybody of several things. First, despite all the praise we were getting, we had to stay humble. Second, perfection isn’t possible. And it also helps to have a sense of humor in tense situations.”