How an Ice Cream Company Is Fighting Racism

October 5, 2016, 2:57 PM UTC

If the inevitable rehashing of the vice presidential debate makes you want to curl up in a ball and dip a spoon into a gallon of creamy, cold comfort, Ben & Jerry’s hopes you’ll pause on your way to the freezer to do something good for your country.

The feel good, hippy-dippy brand of ice cream, long known for its outspoken support of progressive causes, has been championing voting rights access for the last eighteen months. And now, they want your vote, too.

“We spent the better part of 2014 and 2015 on climate change,” says Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s Social Mission Activism Manager, preparing to deliver signatures in the run-up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference held last November. “After that, it became clear to us that systemic racism is the defining civil rights issue of our time. And we saw the election as a chance to begin to focus on those issues.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark ruling which outlawed racist tactics like literacy tests and other Jim Crow shenanigans. After that, new legislation began popping up all over the country that made it more difficult for millions of voters to cast a ballot—disproportionately young, African Americans and Latinos, people with disabilities, low-income earners, and senior citizens. It became the focal point for the activism team.

“We get that this issue – and talking about race – is controversial stuff,” he said. And has nothing to do with ice cream. “But we’ve always been willing to do things that many in the corporate world would reel from.”

The campaign has three elements: To register people to vote, to get registered voters to sign cards pledging to vote and – the big ask – to get voters to contact Congress and ask them to restore the Voting Rights Act. Where their climate change petition exceeded their hopes – they collected 350,000 signatures, some 10% of all signatures worldwide – this campaign has been tougher.

“We had hoped to get about 150,000 people to sign the VRA petition, and we hit about a third of that,” says Miller. “There’s been a fair bit of blow back. Reasonable people have different views on this issue. And there’s always, like, why don’t you just make ice cream?”

Ben & Jerry’s is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the consumer goods giant, Unilever (UL), which has been fully supportive of the ice cream maker’s decisions around advocacy. “This is not a cause-related marketing thing,” says Miller. “This really is our values and who we are as a brand.” Miller works with a cross-functional team that offers input on marketing, strategy, and execution, and stays close to the CEO and board – which is independent of Unilever by design. “But, Unilever has been great, even when we get whacked in the head.”

To be clear, Unilever is no shrinking violet when it comes to causes. Paul Polman, the CEO, has set and met audacious goals to reduce the company’s environmental footprint, among many other accomplishments.

Despite the mixed results of the VRA campaign, Miller says they’ll be building on their successes and redoubling their efforts in 2017. “We had one piece of content, “Seven Reasons We Know Systemic Racism is Real,” that beat out everything – including pumpkin spice ice cream recipes. That’s a good sign.”

To his corporate brothers and sisters who work on race and inclusion, Miller says to be bold, brave and authentic and willing to take a little bit of flack. Controversial positions can be scary in the business world, but they don’t have to be. “It lifts people up,” he says. “You retain your credibility when you’re authentic, even if you’re working on issues that are disconnected – like ice cream and voting.”

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The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.
—Lyndon B. Johnson

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