National Press Club

Ben & Jerry promote economic parity as cure for social ills

December 12, 2011 | By Richard Lee | rf-lee@earthlink.net

Ice cream entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have made it big in business but are standing side-by-side with the Occupy Wall Street movement, they said at a Dec. 12 Newsmaker.

“I have seen people who were committed, thoughtful, dedicated, people, people who played by the rules, who lost jobs, lost everything," Greenfield, co-founder with Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., said of the Occupy participants. "They had nothing to show for it except huge debt. We are operating in a system that is not working for people. The people at the top get all the opportunities.”

Ben & Jerry’s chief executive Jostein Solheim and Board Chairman Jeff Furman joined Cohen and Greenfield at the Club event. The four leaders of one of the country's most successful and innovative companies, which also promotes social responsibility, painted a sobering picture of the struggling U.S. economy.

They asserted that corporate greed has caused much of the country's income disparity and that the political stalemate in Washington exacerbates the problem.

Ben & Jerry's has supported Occupy Wall Street since the beginning of the movement --“from the first two weeks,” Greenfield said.

Solheim added: “The CEO and the board are aligned with the activists, for the long haul, for economic justice."

He also railed against the top 1 percent of American businesses who, for the most part, “are not interested in the movement, who do not care about or contribute to the common good. This is not what America is all about.”

Cohen and Greenfield's underdog status when they formed their ice cream company in 1981 -- and the market leader, Haagen Daz, unsuccessfuly tried to limit their distribution -- may have sensitized them to those in economic distress today.

Ben & Jerry’s is now sold in 34 countries. It went from a store-front venture to a $300 million ice cream empire now owned by Unilever, a British-Dutch food company

They pride themselves on being a "values-led" business and believe it's good for all business to support the Occupy movement.

In addition to backing Occupy Wall Street, the company also is trying to reduce the influence of money in politics. It is planning a newspaper advertising campaign to bring the message to the American public.

They also are calling for a review of the original charters of American corporations.

“The original idea of corporations was to serve the public interest,” Cohen said. “I don’t think there should be corporations in perpetuity.”

There is, he added, “a definite uncomfortableness about the movement in the corporate world.”

But the movement will continue and grow stronger, they all agreed.

“This is only the beginning of the beginning,” Cohen said. “We can only hope others will join us. I think, in the history of social movements, these take time. How long did it take women to get the vote? Are we going to sell the 99 percent the way we sell ice cream? We need to find a way to involve those people, millions of people. We need more economic equality in this country.”