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Not Made in the USA: Ben & Jerry's

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Did selling out to the man sell out the environment?

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In California, they boast that happy cows make happy milk. In Vermont, it seems that hippie cows make happy milk, or at least some damn good ice cream.

Thirty-two years ago, lifelong friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield completed a speed course on ice cream making at Penn State University. Soon after, they opened up their first ice cream store in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont. By 1979, Ben & Jerry's began what would eventually become an international festivity, debuting the first-ever "Free Cone Day" to commemorate its one-year anniversary.

It seemed that this American company, with its hippie granola roots, was taking the nation by storm. But its story has evolved to be a lot less all-American than it started. As only die-hard Cherry Garcia fans know, Ben and Jerry fell into the arms of the British-Dutch food conglomerate Unilever (UL) nine years ago.

Fortunately, America's beloved ice cream hasn't transformed into mince pie as a result.

Since the merger, Ben & Jerry's has admirably tried to stick to its roots despite its place in its new international family. It was always a food company with a deep-rooted mission: "To look for innovative ways to improve the quality of life in the community" in every business decision it makes. It complemented its unique and delectable ice cream creations with a motive to become socially conscious and involved in the community.

The company's founders prided themselves on using the profits from their successful product to benefit the greater well-being of human beings, plants, and animals alike. Ben and Jerry's product mission promises to make all-natural ice cream, and its economic mission aims for profitable growth.

Ben Cohen once said, "Business has a responsibility to give back to the community," and give back it did. Ben & Jerry's has contributed to communities nationally as well as around the globe, packaging food for local Vermont food banks, rebuilding houses in New Orleans, and constructing a playground in the lower-income neighborhoods of Berlin, Germany.

In April of 2000, Ben and Jerry's decided to vastly expand that community. The privately held company was sold to Unilever for $326 million. Unilever, which also controls ice cream brands Breyers, Good Humor, Popsicle, and Klondike, claimed its objective was to "create an even more dynamic, socially positive ice cream business with global reach."

Ben and Jerry's suddenly went from being a small town Vermont creamery to being part of the world's largest ice cream manufacturer. As part of the deal, Ben and Jerry's retained a separate board of directors from Unilever's other ice cream businesses to maintain its social mission and brand identity. Unilever vowed to continue that social mission internationally.

But, for a hippie-loving, tie-dye-wearing, Phish-following company, selling out to "the man" was met with a decidedly non-groovy reaction.

Bloggers immediately began voicing their concern, arguing that the socially active and mindful Ben & Jerry's company was making a tragic mistake, selling its soul to the evils of the international, corporate machine. One blogger wrote:

"From reports of animal torture, to ruthless monopolizing of food distribution channels, Unilever acts exactly like you would expect a gigantic global profit machine would. No wonder the hippie movement was such a flash in the pan. You guys (Ben and Jerry) want to make a difference? Be one of the first companies to stand up to the machinery. Pull out of Unilever, and go back to being a private company!"


Of course, this Vietnam-like protest is to be expected when a private company with its own unique social agenda merges with the powers of the corporate world. Unilever declined to comment for this story, but Ben & Jerry's website explains that the company is aware that many customers have been apprehensive about the change in ownership and insists that it doesn't signal a change in its mission. "We are happy to assure you that Unilever supports the guiding principles that have been fundamental to our business from the beginning: To look for innovative ways to improve the quality of life of the community in every business decision that we make."

So even as Deadheads and tree-huggers alike may still be stomping their feet, the Ben & Jerry's-Unilever marriage continues to prosper, working to expand their 64 flavors of tasty treats to satisfy pallets of consumers all over the world. And while critics still argue that selling out to the man may tarnish the overall goal of the company, Ben & Jerry's vows to continue to support all organizations that are working toward eliminating the causes of social and environmental issues.

All they are saying is give peace -- and Unilever -- a chance.



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