Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founders on activism in business: 'business needs to take responsibility for more than just its own narrow self interest’

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founders, join Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Jen Rogers to discuss how Ben & Jerry’s adopted their social justice stance, why businesses are important to forcing social change, and the latest participation in passing a bill on qualified immunity.

Video Transcript


JEN ROGERS: I'm Jen Rogers here with Kristin Myers. It's been more than 40 years since two friends who met in middle school gym class opened up a small ice cream shop in Vermont with their big chunks of cookie dough and brownies. Ben and Jerry's revolutionized the way we eat ice cream. And Kristin, as we all know, they mixed in activism as well.


KRISTIN MYERS: Exactly. So Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, welcome to the program now. Now you both sold the company to Unilever back in 2000, but your brand of activism is still very much baked into the corporate DNA. Ben, let's start with you first. I'm wondering why you think that this activism, this social justice imperative is still going strong at the company.

BEN COHEN: You know, I think that our customers, I think that Americans in general, are a people that really care about justice and fairness and equality. And, you know, pretty much when Ben and Jerry's takes the stands, they're stands for justice. And the majority of the population agrees with it. And, you know, when you can form a relationship with your customer that's based on shared values, that's a very, very strong bond.

JEN ROGERS: So Jerry, let's go to you with that. We have a lot of different people that come on this program and are trying to make activist moves that you've been successful with. We had athletes over the summer, one player from the WNBA, people that are told, you know, shut up and dribble. Other people are told stay in your lane. How did you, both of you, navigate this? How were you able to sell ice cream and be activists at the same time? Is it because it was ice cream?

JERRY GREENFIELD: No, you know, and it's interesting because we were told those exact same things when we were starting out. Not just dribble, but stay in your own lane. You should concentrate on the operations of your business. Just make good ice cream and sell it. And everything will be fine. But that's not who we are as people, and that's not what the company is about.

And certainly, there has been pushback over the years. Not everybody agrees with what Ben and Jerry's is doing. But it turns out people really respect businesses when they use their power to talk about social issues and not just think about themselves, about maximizing how much money they can make.

KRISTIN MYERS: So you're both still actively using your own platforms to fight for social change. And right now, it's police reform, and more specifically, something called qualified immunity. So we want to explain to everyone at home exactly what that is. And we have a graphic here to help us do it. So qualified immunity helps protect police and other government officials from being sued in civil court for misconduct. And Jerry, I want to start with you, and then I would love to hear your thoughts, Ben. Why are you both so focused on this particular issue?

JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, there are many issues involved with criminal justice reform, law enforcement reform. This particular one is about having police be accountable for their actions. And for Ben and me, having been in business for 40 years, we understand that accountability is the key to achieving your desired results.

And here, we have a situation where police who are working for us and given the right to use lethal force do not have that accountability. And it breaks down trust between communities and the police. And there are thousands of people who have been harmed by police brutality, maiming, unarmed killings. And there is no way for these people to get justice.

JEN ROGERS: So, Ben, a lot of companies, when they are striking out or working in the activist space, they are close to their mission. Maybe you're an outdoor company, and you're doing something on the environment. Listening to what Jared just talked about, what does focusing on something like this, what does it have to do with ice cream? What does it have to do with food? And does that even matter?

BEN COHEN: I think it's pretty clear that business has now become the most powerful force in our society. You know, if business wants something to happen in our government, it happens. All of the thousands of lobbyists, the billions of dollars every year that are spent on influencing legislation, influencing elections are pretty much, I'd say, 90% done by business.

Business needs to take responsibility for more than just its own narrow self-interest. If you have the most powerful force in your society that cares only about their bottom line, their financial profits, you've got a society that is screwed because you've got the most powerful force that's saying we're not going to be a responsible member of the society. We don't care what happens in the society as a whole. All we care about is making our money.

And so, at Ben and Jerry's, we're saying we are a member of the community. We have concerns about our community in general. And when there's people in our community, mostly Black people and people of color that are getting brutalized and killed time after time after time, and the police, the rogue policemen, who have committed these crimes are not held accountable, that's a time when that most powerful force in our country-- business-- has to finally take a stand.

KRISTIN MYERS: What would you say is the best way in order to either force politicians or even work with them to make some of these legislative changes? Is it saying, hey, you know, if you are a more progressive candidate, for example, or if you are a candidate that supports, you know, criminal justice reform, we're going to throw a couple million dollars or a couple thousand dollars behind your campaign-- or even on the reverse end, you know, if you are a politician who doesn't support some of these initiatives.

Does it require, you know, a company like Ben and Jerry's or a company like Amazon, for example, to go out there and say, hey, you know what? We're actually going to put a bunch of money behind your opponent to make sure that you aren't re-elected.

JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, Ben and Jerry's doesn't support any candidate or any political parties. And I think what Ben and Jerry's tries to do, what Ben and I try to do is to activate people to get involved in issues. One of the great things about Ben and Jerry's is, the company does make ice cream. You asked about ice cream before. The company is able to use its ice cream to connect with people, to communicate about issues.

And I think one of the best things the company does is to partner with advocacy non-profit organizations who are the experts in the issues to work with them. You had Mr. Newman on from the ACLU. Ben and Jerry's has worked with the ACLU, Color of Change, the Advancement Project National Office. And I think that's how Ben and Jerry's becomes so effective by using its ice cream and its voice.

BEN COHEN: You know, I think business's most powerful tool in general is its voice. That's what business is doing with all those lobbyists in Congress. If business really wanted to make sure that this was a just country, they would tell their lobbyists, hey, work on this issue of qualified immunity.

KRISTIN MYERS: Yeah, before we go to break, I kind of want to address-- I don't want to call it the elephant in the room. But I think it is something that a lot of folks think about, which is that you are two white men. And you guys are very outspoken on these issues of racial justice, on racial equity. And this is something that you have both chatted about with me before. And I would love just for you to give the audience, again, why you both feel it is so important for you both, as white men, to take a stand and to be really involved in pushing for racial equity and racial justice.

JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, the first thing I'll say is this is not just a Black problem. This is a white problem. And for things to get any better, white people need to be out front. And I'm the first to acknowledge it is not always comfortable, it is not always easy, and this is one of those times where you have to just say, I'm going to do what's right. I'm going to do something, even if it's uncomfortable for me.

KRISTIN MYERS: Ben, I would love to get your thoughts on this.

BEN COHEN: You know, I think the reality of our country is that white people have the power. We are the huge majority. And so, when we have police acting in our name and with our money that are abusing and brutalizing and shooting Black Americans in the back, it's our problem. They're the ones that are suffering. We are the guys that are tacitly allowing it to continue. And we have to stand up and say, no, we're not going to do that anymore. It's our problem because we have the power to solve it.

KRISTIN MYERS: Sibile, I know you've been listening in and have a few questions of your own for Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: That's right, Kristin. I just couldn't wait to jump in, but you guys had a great conversation in the previous block. So let's just keep it going. So Ben and Jerry, but I'll start with Ben, when it comes to the campaign to stop qualified immunity, are you ever worried that you might be demonizing all police or that law enforcement might get-- some of them might feel hurt and not want to buy Ben and Jerry's ice cream?

BEN COHEN: We've been very clear throughout the campaign that we support, in general, the amazing police officers that are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect and serve. The reality is that policing will never work effectively if there is not trust between the community and the police. And trust is a two-way street. Without accountability, you will never be able to have trust in the police.

And so, police-- you know, the police-- you know, the Fraternal Order of Police says that policemen must have more rights than the everyday person. The everyday person is accountable for their actions. But we allow our police to use lethal force in our name. That's the only element of our society that we allow to use lethal force in our name. They should be held more accountable.

And, you know, sometimes we talk with the police. And they say, well, if our officers are going to be held accountable for their actions, we're not going to be able to recruit officers. And my answer is that I don't want any police officers that are not willing to be held accountable for their actions.

JERRY GREENFIELD: You know, what we say is love the good ones, prosecute the bad ones. Eliminating qualified immunity, the only people it will hurt are bad cops. So at the campaign to end qualified immunity, we're clearly saying, this is not antipolice. This is anti-bad police.

JEN ROGERS: Hey, real quick before we let you go, can Apple or Amazon be like Ben and Jerry's? Or are they just too big? Ben?

BEN COHEN: I think any company can be like Ben and Jerry's to stand up for the things that our country is supposed to be about-- justice, equality, fairness. And that's basic. I mean, you know, when people are getting shot, when they haven't done anything wrong, by police, and the police are not held accountable, that is unjust. And you can help out and join in by going to the campaign to end qualified immunity dot org, or, if that's easier for you.

JEN ROGERS: That's going to have to be everyone's homework Thanks so much for joining us and having this conversation.