Ben and Jerry's chair talks company's beginnings

By Carolyn Gearig, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 30, 2014

Despite 40-degree weather and cloudy skies, more than 200 people went to Rackham Auditorium Friday afternoon for free Ben and Jerry's ice cream — and a talk from one of the men who started it all.

Jeff Furman, chairman of the board of directors of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, discussed the company’s socially responsible business practices and its evolution from its humble beginning. The difficulty of making profits while focusing on social justice led to both growth and difficulties, culminating in the sale of the company almost 14 years ago to Unilever, a consumer goods company that owns more than 400 brands.

The School of Information sponsored the event with support from Innovate Blue, the Ross School of Business and Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the School of Public Health. The event included free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a signing of the book “Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben and Jerry’s.”

Furman, who has been chairman of the board of directors since 2010, helped found the company’s first location in 1978. It now has more than 600 locations across the globe, including a franchise on South State Street in Ann Arbor.

“The struggle to maintain our identity has always been a difficult thing for us,” he said.

The company has a three-part mission focused on quality products, strong profits and social justice. Furman spoke extensively about the company’s actions to support a variety of causes. Ben & Jerry’s shuns the use of genetically modified organisms in its products and uses fair trade ingredients as often as possible, Furman said.

“To put it simply, we believe that businesses must actively lead in global solutions or there may never be global solutions,” Furman said. “We must challenge the status quo.”

In 2010, the company faced criticism from a Washington-based watchdog group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for marketing its ice cream as “all-natural.”

The criticism stemmed from the use of chemically modified ingredients, such as alkalized cocoa and corn syrup. The company does use cage-free eggs and dairy without bovine growth hormones, but nevertheless removed the “all-natural” moniker.

“We have decided to remove these claims and focus more strongly on our other core values,” said CEO Jostein Solheim wrote in a letter to CSPI.

Ben & Jerry’s pays hourly employees more than double most states’ minimum wage, and until the company was acquired by Unilever, the company limited its CEO’s pay to 17 times what a normal full-time worker in a store would make.

“People can’t live on $7.40 an hour,” Furman said. “We do not treat people as transactions but rather as individuals.”

LSA sophomore Maddie Jursek attended the event because she is interested in social responsibility in business.

“I’m interested in hearing about how corporations are dealing with changes ahead of us like climate change, poverty and similar causes,” Jursek said. “I thought it was interesting to hear from a company that was so socially responsible.”