A Vermont clean water activist has filed a lawsuit claiming Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. and Unilever, its corporate parent, use misleading marketing to make consumers believe its farmers protect the environment and their animals.
Activist James Ehlers filed the class action lawsuit in federal court Oct. 29 on behalf of himself and other consumers of Ben & Jerry’s products.
The suit lays out a series of allegedly deceptive advertising and marketing claims employed by the world-famous ice cream maker. It says Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever claim their products are made from “happy cows” raised by “happy farmers” who follow sustainable agriculture practices.
More from VPR: Consumer Group Alleges Ben & Jerry's Green Image Not Met By Reality [July 11, 2018]
“Ehlers, like other reasonable consumers who see Unilever’s representations about milk and cream sourced exclusively from ‘happy cows’ on ‘Caring Dairy’ farms, did not expect the products to be made with dairy produced on regular factory-style, mass production dairy operations,” the suit reads.
It continues: “By deceiving consumers about the true nature of the Ben & Jerry’s products, Unilever is able to sell a greater volume of the products, to charge higher prices for the products, and to take away market share from competitors, thereby increasing its own sales and profits.”
Ben & Jerry’s does have a “Caring Dairy” program that pays about 65 farms a premium if they follow certain farming and labor practices, including cover cropping, reducing pesticide use, and raising workers wages. But that milk is then blended with milk from several hundred conventional farms, which Ehlers calls factory farms that have polluted Lake Champlain.
Ehlers says Ben & Jerry’s could transform the dairy industry in Vermont if it insisted on better performance from all the farms it buys from.
“But it doesn’t appear that they want to,” he said. “It appears they want to operate on these misrepresentations rather than actually affecting the image that they’re profiting from.”
Ben & Jerry’s says it does not comment on pending litigation. But in a statement from Dave Rapaport, the company’s “global social mission officer,” the company said it is committed to improving farming practices.
“While we don’t comment on a pending lawsuit, we understand that this claim is about false advertising," he said. "We are proud of the work we’ve done with Vermont’s family farmers over the past 35 years, and we believe our Caring Dairy program is the most progressive in the industry. We’re committed to building a resilient, regenerative dairy supply."
Rapaport added, “Our vision for the future is that all dairy used by Ben & Jerry’s comes from farms that have thriving livelihoods for farmers and farm workers; the highest standard of care for cows; feed grown ecologically, without the use of harmful chemicals; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, where the farm operations act as a 'carbon sink.'"
Rapaport said that from 2016-2108, Ben & Jerry’s paid farmers premiums totaling approximately $10.7 million. That includes premiums paid under the Milk with Dignity program, which stipulates that participating farms must pay workers at least minimum wage, provide paid time off and quality housing.
Ehlers' class action lawsuit against Ben & Jerry's outlines similar claims made in a lawsuit brought the by Organic Consumers Association in 2018. That suit is still pending.