You may know Ben and Jerry’s as your go-to comfort food or favorite movie snack. But Jeff Furman, chairman of the board of directors of Ben and Jerry’s, wants you to know the beloved ice cream brand for something else: social justice.
Dispelling the idea that the company’s purpose was to simply sell ice cream, Furman said that Ben and Jerry’s in fact is a “social justice company that uses ice cream to support our work.”
Cornell Sustainable Enterprise Association welcomed back Furman — who is a Ithaca resident and spoke at Cornell in 2015 — on Thursday night at the Breazzano Center for a discussion on the company’s sustainability efforts and social activism.
Furman, who helped to draw up the original business plan for co-founder Ben Cohen, has been on the board of directors for almost 40 years, serving the last eight years as chairman.
“That was the vision, the plan. To open one store in Vermont,” Furman said as he recounted meeting Cohen while they both worked at a school in the Adirondacks in the years leading up to the company’s founding.
Today, Ben and Jerry’s has come a long way from that first store in Vermont. The company can be found in 39 countries worldwide.
In 2000, Ben and Jerry’s was sold to the Anglo-Dutch company Unilever, but the company was still able to retain its commitment to social justice issues. Furman mentioned a key point of this acquisition was Unilever’s agreement to an independent board of directors.
“The board has significant rights,” Furman said, which enable it to be run with “a strong social perspective.”
Furman said Ben and Jerry’s, as well as himself, has supported a number of causes throughout the years, such as funding community-oriented projects as early as 1985 to, more recently, advocating for refugees and offering public support to the activist Black Lives Matter Movement.
The company has also long extended its support to both its consumers and to its employees, Furman said.
Ben and Jerry’s has offered its employees a living wage for about 20 years, Furman said, and the company has rejected the use of artificial growth hormones in its products and is now fully palm-oil free.
Currently, Furman said Ben and Jerry’s has been in talks for two years to develop worker-led agreements for its farm workers. Agreements have centered on the commitments to regenerative agriculture, to animal welfare and to the use of non-GMO feed on dairy farms.
Additionally, the company is working toward getting all GMO’s labeled for consumers.
Furman asked during the discussion, “What is the role of the private sector?” He went on to emphasize that business has the obligation to speak up and to join in social activism, to take an active role.
“If you accept the status quo, then you’re saying that it’s okay,” he said. “How much more data do you need to act?”