After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests that followed calling for racial justice, many companies around the world put out statements that were intended to show support for racial equity. Many of those messages were criticized for being vague.
But there's one company that's earned praise for its response: Vermont's own Ben & Jerry's ice cream, which has a long history of speaking out on the liberal side of social and political issues. However, some local activists see the company falling short of their rhetoric.
Just days after George Floyd was killed, Ben & Jerry's published a blog post titled "We must dismantle white supremacy." That caught the attention of a lot of social media users, who were impressed by the company's language, and its record.
“Did you know that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is so expensive because they hire people recently released from the prison system and pay them $16 or more an hour?” said TikTok user Delawesst in a video with over 4 million views. “They’re doin’ the damn thing.”
Ben & Jerry's was a darling of social justice activists long before its recent statements. The South Burlington company says it pays its Vermont employees a minimum of just over $18 an hour, and they stopped doing criminal background checks in 2015.
The company also has a long track record of speaking out on issues – from climate change, to refugee resettlement to transgender rights. Ben & Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy said speaking out on racial justice is nothing new for the company.
“Back in 2016, we went on record in support of Black Lives Matter,” McCarthy said.
And in 2019, the company endorsed a bill in Congress which would study the effects of systemic racism. McCarthy said endorsing that specific legislation was critical.
“What I have learned as a white male of privilege, spending a lot of my life not even understanding the very concepts of white privilege and the benefits that I’ve received through my entire life as a white man, is that systemic racism is everywhere. It is literally everywhere and understanding it is a prerequisite to dismantling it,” McCarthy said.
After the killing of George Floyd, Ben & Jerry's reiterated its support for those measures, then on Juneteenth, the company put out a statement echoing calls by protestors to defund police departments, in favor of public investments in things like affordable housing and mental health care.
Activism and the product line
Paul Argenti, who studies corporate communication at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, said statements like these make business sense for Ben & Jerry's.
“They’re coming to understand that taking a political or social stand is really a way to stay relevant, particularly with millennials,” Argenti said. He gives the company credit for being more specific and pointed than some other companies, but ultimately he doesn’t think it means much.
“I mean, they’re not in a position to really change the nature of the conversation.”
So what would really make a splash? Curtiss Reed Jr., who directs the Vermont Partnership for Fairnessand Diversity, said Ben and Jerry's should do something that would affect their bottom line. Specifically, he thinks they should name a flavor after a prominent activist of color.
“When you begin naming your product after Mohammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick, maybe you’ll see a slip in your bottom line,” Reed said. “So I believe that they should put themselves out if they want to embrace action around racial injustice. Then, let’s not name ice creams after non-controversial white guys.”
Those non-controversial white guys – Jerry Garcia, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, the members of the band Phish – do make up most of Ben & Jerry’s tribute flavors. Last year, the company issued a limited-run flavor called Justice Remix’d. Some of the proceeds go to a racial justice organization. But Reed wasn't impressed.
“How many decades have they had Jerry Garcia? How many years have they had Jimmy Fallon? How many years have they had Phish?”
A Ben & Jerry's spokesperson said in a statement that the company "appreciates the energy around this idea," but notes that the company does not want to be viewed as "trying to profit off the movement."
While Ben & Jerry's isn’t public, the brand is owned by Unilever. That conglomerate reported over $6 billion dollars in net profits in 2019.
Even beyond racial justice issues, Ben & Jerry's receives mixed reviews from activists. The group Migrant Justice targeted the company in 2015, aiming to get Ben & Jerry’s to improve working conditions for migrant workers on Vermont's dairy farms. Ben & Jerry’s eventually signed on to an agreement to do s in 2017.
“It took years of convincing,” said Marita Canedo, who coordinates Migrant Justice's Milk With Dignity program.
“It takes time for people to understand, and for companies to understand, how much power they have and how much control of dynamics of power in small places like a farm [they have], that can really change just by understanding and listening to the voices of the most vulnerable communities,” Canedo said.
So, the company came around to work with Migrant Justice. But there’s one issue activists in Vermont have pushed the ice cream company on for years, to no avail. Wafic Faour, with Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, says his organization has been campaigning for seven years around Ben & Jerry’s operations in Israel, where the company has done business since 1987.
“We ask Ben & Jerry’s to pull out its business from Palestinian-occupied land and illegally built Jewish-only settlements on the West Bank,” Faour said.
Faour said given the company’s activism around issues of racial justice, their lack of action on the plight of Palestinians is hypocritical.
For its part, Ben & Jerry’s says it’s committed to its licensee in Israel, while also "continuing to be a voice for positive change." The company also notes its Israeli manufacturing facility and two scoop shops are located outside occupied territories.
Still, in recent weeks, activists on social media have taken notice of Ben & Jerry's operations in Israel. Now, many of the glowing reviews of the ice cream company have spawned responses calling out the company.
“As much as everyone is praising Ben & Jerry’s for their activism and speaking out about the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in America, we need to address the fact that Ben & Jerry’s is pro-Israel and actively Zionist,” says TikTok user Fatiddy in a recent video with over 120,000 views.
Fatiddy calls on people to boycott the company.
Disclosure: Ben & Jerry's is a VPR underwriter.