I spent a couple of days in Burlington, Vt., last week at the world headquarters of Ben & Jerry's, learning about the company's commitment to source 100 percent of all possible ingredients from fair trade sources by the end of 2013 (October is Fair Trade Month). I joined a group of fellow bloggers for two days of talks, presentations, tours and even a visit from founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and came away impressed with their commitment to making the world a better place.
A lot of people have been watching the company since it was purchased by mega corporation Unilever in 2000, waiting for the company to slip up and forfeit its heart and soul to the altar of multinational corporatism. For the most part those watchers have been disappointed. When Ben & Jerry's sold itself to Unilever, they mandated that the company retain a special board to protect the company's ability to perform its social mission. That board handles Ben & Jerry's social mission work and leaves the financial and operational duties to corporate managers at Unilever. Ben & Jerry's has done a remarkable job of maintaining its focus on improving the world while selling super tasty ice cream, and the company has been active in lobbying for more humane treatment for farm animals, for protecting wilderness and against the use of cloning and growth hormones in dairy cows.
In its simplest form, fair trade is all about making sure that the developing world farmers who grow our coffee, sugar, bananas and other food stocks don't get screwed over by predatory middlemen. When you buy a cup of fair trade coffee you might be paying an extra nickel, but that 5 cents goes a long way and could mean a farmer gets 50 percent to 100 percent more for his crop than if he had sold through conventional channels. Fair trade means the children of farmers go to school and that the farmers have resources to invest back into their own operations and the community at large.
Ben & Jerry's has been getting an ever-growing percentage of its ingredients from fair trade sources for years, but the commitment to go 100 percent by 2013 is a bold and ambitious one that has required an enormous amount of money and human power to coordinate. It's going to be complicated and expensive, but they think it's the right thing to do for the bottom line and the world at large.
During our visit with Ben and Jerry, my friend Starre Vartan (of Ecochick and MNN) asked Ben why they decided to focus on fair trade and not on going all organic or giving a certain percentage of their profits away to worthy causes. He answered that "the most powerful thing companies can do for the world are the things that are integrated in their day to day business activities. There's a limit to how much money you can give away; there's no limit to how many ingredients you can buy because you're always selling it for more than it costs."
On our first day in Burlington, we took the standard tourist tour of the Waterbury plant, followed by the first of the day's many ice cream samplings.
We made a quick stop at the gift shop where we got complimentary Ben & Jerry's T-shirts and then drove to the company's corporate headquarters ... which has a slide that leads down from the treehouse conference room! This is Starre about to test out the steep enclosed slide.
She made it.
The rest of the office is similarly eclectic.
I honestly don't know how everyone at Ben & Jerry's isn't grossly overweight. There's a scoop shop in the office where everything costs $1. Granted, it's where they train franchise owners on the ins and outs of running a shop, so it's not open all the time, but even still, it must prove to be a hard temptation to resist. Throw in the fact that every employee is allowed to bring home three free pints of ice cream a day (that's more than 1,000 pints a year!!) and it's understandable why the company built a full-sized gym staffed by a personal trainer in the heart of the office.
The activity I was looking forward to the most was making our own ice cream flavor. We all donned white lab coats and were shown the ropes in their R&D kitchen by the tie-dye jacketed flavor pros. These people make a living making up different flavors of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Coolest job ever.
Here's the head Ben & Jerry's flavor guru (on the left) showing us the selection of fair trade ingredients with which we were to make our flavors. For the record, he's the guy who came up with chocolate chip cookie dough and Chubby Hubby flavors.
I chose white chocolate chips, toffee bits, and chocolate-covered coconut bits in a vanilla ice cream base.
I was relieved to learn that the company has retained its desire to use the business to do more than just sell ice cream. I'm a huge, lifelong fan of Cherry Garcia, and it would make me sad to know that the company that makes it turned into everything they stood against while they were an independent company.
Fair trade is an important global issue, and I'll be covering more of it in the months and years to come. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the fair trade logo in the grocery store and do the right thing — by putting products with the logo in your shopping cart.
Melissa McGinis of Greenopolis TV was along for the trip and made this video below. Have a look.
Ben & Shea & Jerry has a nice ring to it, don't you think? ;p
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