So Unilever has gobbled up Ben & Jerry’s. The $45 billion mega-company that rose from the British and Dutch colonial empires (turning palm and coconut oil into soap and margarine) has acquired Vermont’s outrageous little ice cream maker for $326 million. The American dream at work. A couple of hippies invent wild new ice cream flavors in their garage and end up multimillionaires.
There are so many different ways to take this news:
- Well, I guess the New York Super Fudge Chunk will still taste just as good.
- Heck, why did I sell at $13? (Unilever is paying a whopping $43.60 per share.)
- Whoa, I wonder how long my job will last. (Unilever has announced its intention to shed 25,000 workers worldwide over the next five years. Ben & Jerry’s CEO Perry Odak announced at the press conference that the multinational will continue to make Ben & Jerry’s products only in Vermont “at least for now” and will even keep up the amazing fringe benefit of three free pints per employee per day. Antony Burgmans, a Unilever cochair, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying with regard to Ben & Jerry’s, “For two years there will be no layoffs.”)
- What will happen to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation? (As a condition of the deal, Unilever will continue giving away 7.5 percent of all pre-tax profits and will contribute an up-front $5 million to the foundation — plus another $5 million for minority-owned business startups and yet another $5 million to employees. What the Foundation will fund in the future remains, of course, to be seen.)
- So much for social responsibility (such as paying dairy farmers a premium). So much for irreverence (the infamous “What’s the Doughboy afraid of?” campaign, which made public fun of competitor Pillsbury when it tried to use corporate muscle to push Ben & Jerry’s off supermarket shelves). So much for freedom (refusing to use milk produced with bovine growth hormone in spite of Monsanto’s threats). So much for fun (Friday afternoon back massages for the staff; free scoop days; the world’s craziest stockholder meetings). The engulfed Ben & Jerry’s will still have its own board, including both Ben and Jerry, but can you imagine such unconventionality within the Unilever corporate culture?
Truth is, the freewheeling Ben & Jerry’s has been less free since going public and growing big enough to bring in professional managers. In order to attract those managers, the company said it had to sacrifice its self-imposed limit on the gap between its lowest and highest compensation rates. That’s when we all knew the point had been crossed, the awful point beyond which a business has to make serious tradeoffs between getting bigger and sticking to its principles.
But who’s to say the upstart David can’t transform the multinational Goliath, rather than the other way around? Vermont’s lone member of the House, Bernie Sanders (I), at least holds out the possibility: “My hope is that … Unilever will change its position on agricultural issues and advocate for policies in Washington and elsewhere that preserve family farming in Vermont, instead of policies that drive family farmers off the land.” And Ben, the very Ben Cohen himself, reportedly was hooked when a Unilever executive looked him in the eye and said, “Ben, do you realize the opportunity you have here to help this company grow in its social commitment?”
I try hard not to be a cynic, so I’ll challenge Unilever not to give me and everyone else the excuse to do so. I will believe that a huge corporation can be principled if Ben & Jerry’s continues to refuse to use milk produced with bovine growth hormone. And if, as Unilever’s advertising clout swells the market for Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, milk will be bought in Mexico or Brazil at a price that lets small farmers keep farming — without undercutting farmers in Vermont. And if, as Chunky Monkey starts being made in Mexico and Brazil, workers there get paid enough to raise their families in safety and dignity — without undercutting workers in Vermont. And if, as they wash out Phish Food vats in any part of the world, they meet Vermont standards about not letting that wastewater pollute the phish … fish. Of course I fear there’s not a Triple Caramel Chunk’s chance in hell of any of this happening. Most Ben & Jerry’s stockholders prided themselves on their social responsibility (and made out well in the end anyway). Unilever will have to find such stockholders, or educate them, or do the right thing in spite of them.
Maybe there’s a chance. Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, I wish you success, measured in more than money. But if it doesn’t work, if five or 20 years from now there’s nothing more than a Ben & Jerry’s historical marker in Vermont, maybe we will be willing to rethink the system that rewards corporations for seeking the cheapest raw materials, the lowest-paid workers, and the most lax environmental standards in order to produce the fastest growth. Maybe, instead of being cynics, we’ll become activists in forging a corporate environment that measures success, as Ben & Jerry’s did, in more than money.