Picture this. It’s 1978 in Vermont. Two childhood friends from New York have just completed a course in ice cream making by correspondence from Pennsylvania State University’s Creamery. One of them is unable to taste so they experiment with adding chunks and various textures into their ice cream. With $12,000 in their pockets, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield open their very first ice cream parlour in a refurbished petrol station.
Sofia Breitholtz is the Social Mission Manager of Ben & Jerry’s Nordic division. She’s here at the monthly Stockholm Food Movement to educate and inspire the future changemakers of the food industry, and to tell us about the history, the challenges, and the vision behind Sweden’s favourite ice cream brand.
As the former Deputy CEO of Solvatten, this is not Sofia’s first foray with a social enterprise. She does concede, however, that Ben & Jerry’s business model is a very interesting one, and an example of how companies can muster social change.
In 2000, Unilever acquired the Ben & Jerry’s company. This was viewed as being quite a contentious period. Cohen and Greenfield “continued to have a very purpose-driven and values-driven business and they pushed that very hard through Unilever.” Unilever has since adopted a more transparent and overall more sustainable model for itself.
“Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in what is quite a unique agreement and one that is still studied in business schools today,” Sofia explains. Nearly two decades later, “there is still an independent board of directors who have a say on the product and the social mission. That’s a very unique caveat,” meaning that the board has the final say on how the company achieves its goals.
“We believe that the business has a responsibility to give back to the community. The product mission is basically to have the best product with the best ingredients. We have an economic mission that is to grow in a sustainable way, and a social mission to operate the company in a way that actively recognises the central role of the business in society.”
“This third leg is extremely unique because many companies go for the first two, but haven’t thought of the third one — how do we really impact society around us? This is all that I work on and it’s very interesting to look at what Ben & Jerry’s does in this arena.”
When Sofia first joined the company, she was surprised that they didn’t speak more about the social aspects outside of their inner-circles. “Sustainability is measured in different ways throughout our programs both in terms of the ingredients we use, the transport, how society perceives us, and what we see in our society that we want to change. We’re a certified B-corporation in the US and we don’t use any GMOs.”
The company aligns their practices with Fairtrade standards, but this is viewed as the bottom tier, the minimum requirements to achieving their mission. A concerted effort is made to collaborate closely with producers, and to support organisations such as the Greyston Bakery that employs people who, for one reason or another, find it difficult to find long-term employment.
“Another large part of what we do is our activism campaigns which stem back to our history. One of the founders just got arrested for a social campaign so they’re still active,” Sofia laughs. “We stand for something, and we act on our values, and we invite our fans and customers to join us.”
“We want to act as a megaphone for issues that we care about, and to bring a bit of fun to these issues through ice cream. How do we drive our social value and our sustainability agenda through being a values-driven business? We want to pioneer and really force a systems change, and we want to lead within the industry. We’re also challenging the conventions from within, and that is a way forward as well.”
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Stockholm Food Movement is a new initiative designed to bring education for sustainable development to the people of Stockholm. Our events aim to inspire the future leaders and changemakers of the food industry.