ee-rodney-coffee-bagsBy Rodney North of Equal Exchange

All socially responsible companies invest time and money to benefit people and things that don’t contribute directly to their financial returns.  Ben & Jerry’s goes further.  They also bet their brand, over and over, by speaking up on controversial causes.  As a veteran of the world of corporate social responsibility, I’ve ceased to be much impressed when a company announces a new investment in good works.  But when a company takes a public stand on an important issue — as Ben & Jerry’s is now doing by insisting on the labeling of crops grown with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — that’s different.

Ice Cream Social shows how Ben & Jerry’s challenged Monsanto in the 1990s by suing for the right to declare that its ice cream came from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). That move helped catalyze a broad resistance to rBGH, a product that is now eschewed by many brands and retailers, and which is now banned throughout the European Union.  It worked because Ben & Jerry’s is a well-known company with intimate connections to the dairy industry, and they were willing speak out – loudly. Whereas Monsanto could with some success dismiss the assertion of activists and scientists, they couldn’t say that Ben & Jerry’s didn’t know what they were talking about, or that Ben & Jerry’s didn’t understand the needs of dairy farmers.  Ben & Jerry’s spoke truth to power, and it blunted much of Monsanto’s spin and obfuscation.

image001We at Equal Exchange have had similar experiences, albeit on a smaller scale.  In 2001, media reports exposed widespread forced child labor on cacao farms in West Africa, the source of 70% of the world’s cocoa. The largest exporters, processors, and manufacturers of cocoa and chocolate cried in unison that there was nothing they could do about the problem. They said that the proposed remedies were impossible or would actually harm farmers. We were only a small chocolate company then, but we joined other Fair Traders to say that change was, in fact, possible. Our Fair Trade purchases from certified farmer co-ops were already demonstrating that audited supply chains were quite feasible. Our small revenue stream, and our public statements, made it a little harder for the ‘big boys’ to resist overdue reforms.

To me, this is the most valuable lesson to be drawn from the Ben & Jerry’s story.  A company can strengthen the hands of activists, create a unique kind of marketplace pressure, and be a powerful ingredient in the recipe for change when it dares to speak out.

–Rodney North has been “the Answer Man” at Equal Exchange, a worker-owned company, for 16 years.