How Ben & Jerry’s activist history allows it to call out white supremacy and police brutality

June 23, 2020, 10:00 AM UTC

Even the ice cream is on a mission for social change at Ben & Jerry’s. Look no further than its pints of Pecan Resist and Justice ReMix’d, which “has something extra awesome under the lid: a sweet swirl of justice.”

But earlier this month, the Unilever-owned ice cream brand made it clear just how serious it is about racial justice when, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the company put out a statement that garnered attention on social media for its starkness amid a sea of corporate platitudes.

“The murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy,” a portion of it read. “What happened to George Floyd was not the result of a bad apple; it was the predictable consequence of a racist and prejudiced system and culture that has treated Black bodies as the enemy from the beginning.”

While perhaps better known for its tongue-in-cheek flavors, the statement is very much in line with Ben & Jerry’s history. The company was started by what Chris Miller, the brand’s head of activism strategy, describes as two “counterculture guys” in 1978 in Burlington, Vt. From the beginning, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield took a triple–bottom line approach to business—valuing planet and people alongside profits—long before it was trendy, Miller says. Even after the cofounders sold the brand to Unilever in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s retained its independent streak and social mission.

The company, which often works with outside partners in its advocacy efforts, has tackled everything from climate change to LGBTQ equality to criminal justice reform. It campaigned at the end of the Cold War to reduce military spending and was one of the first companies to institute same-sex domestic partner benefits and to go on record in support of Black Lives Matter. It works with groups like the Close the Workhouse campaign to shut down a notorious St. Louis jail and the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic justice. 

Fortune talked to Miller, whose résumé includes a stint at Greenpeace, about the company’s roots in activism and its decision to put out its “We must dismantle white supremacy” release. “This statement has garnered a lot of attention,” Miller says. “While words matter, I don’t want to overestimate or inflate the impact that a single statement can have, because it’s about doing the work.”

Edited excerpts follow. 

Fortune: A lot of companies put out statements in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, but some were pretty generic. Yours was really to the point. How did it come about? 

Miller: We set off on this work, specifically focused on issues of racial justice, about five years ago. We gather every year as a company in what we call our global franchise meeting. And at one of those meetings in the wake of Ferguson, and the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others, our cofounder Ben Cohen came to the stage in a “hands-up, don’t shoot” T-shirt. It sort of spurred a bit of controversy in the room at the time. But for those of us who are charged with the advocacy and activism work in the company, his message resonated with us. 

What he basically said was, if we are a company that continues to be committed to the values on which it was founded, we had an obligation to wrestle with some of these issues. 

There are moments when it feels like it’s important simply to go on record—to stand and be counted. The events of the past couple of weeks brought us to a place where we felt like we, as a company, had to go on record and talk about these issues of white supremacy, police brutality, and structural racism. Thoughts and prayers and messages of unity are not really sufficient anymore. 

Several of the terms that you used in your statement, like police brutality, were missing from a lot of corporate statements. Why is that the case? 

For most companies, it’s counterintuitive to think that you want to say something that would be perceived as controversial, or that would put a certain segment of society off. 

Companies get it wrong when they try and negotiate some sort of mushy middle—where they want to align themselves and express their point of view, but they’re unwilling to really talk about this in a way that is real. 

Do you see this as a broader shift within corporate America, where companies do feel like they need to now weigh in on social issues? 

The truth is, corporations are the most powerful entities in society. Centuries ago, it was the church. One hundred years ago it was national governments. And today, for better or for worse—it’s often for worse—corporations are the most powerful entities within society. They more often than not use that to advance their own very narrow self-interest. So corporations are focused on tax policy, labor policy, and trade policy. 

Corporations have vast sway over policymakers. It would be a hugely positive development if we either sideline corporations from the political process, or if some of these corporations would be willing and able to match their words that they state publicly with their willingness to use their government affairs team and their lobbying power to promote these policies with policymakers. I think that that could be tremendously influential in making some change. 

Was there anything in your statement that got pushback from management or your outside partners?  

There was a fair bit of discussion about how directly do we want to engage around the Trump administration. The President has proved himself to be largely irrelevant on these issues. And so the first call to action that we had was calling on the President to create a national process, a truth and reconciliation process for our nation. 

I was a strong proponent for calling the President out on these issues. He has not been a unifying force on these issues. He has used his platform and his social media channels to promote racist, nationalist messages. 

Part of the problem that exists in this country today is that mainstream, normal people have been unwilling to call the President out on it. Business leaders haven’t. Policymakers haven’t. And that’s not okay. We all have a responsibility to push back, and to suggest that this is not normal and it’s not okay. I’m under no illusion that anything we say—or for that matter, anything anyone else is going to say—is going to change him. But it is important that Americans hear from leaders and respected companies that his approach to this is not okay. 

Was there concern at all about alienating a part of your customer base who might disagree with you? 

I’ve been at the company now a little over six years. No one has ever said to me, “We’re not doing that, because that’s going to hurt our sales” or “That’s going to piss off a segment of our consumer base.” Our former CEO, Jostein Solheim, was fond of saying, “The more people we piss off, the more ice cream we sell.” 

Obviously, that’s not at all why we do these things. But we have grown this business year over year for 42 years. It started in a gas station in downtown Burlington; we’re now in 40 countries around the world. Might we have been bigger if we didn’t do these things? Perhaps. But we are one of the most well-known ice cream brands on the planet. And so this idea that having the courage and being bold, and doing this kind of work is detrimental to your business clearly is not the case. 

You’ve noted that you’re a white company in a white state. I’m sure that this is also a moment of self-reflection for you as a company. How are you hoping to change the company going forward? 

I’ll give you my point of view as an employee. We do have work to do there. We have three primary parts of the business, and we need to do more work in each one of them. 

One is with our corporate headquarters staff and leadership team, which is not very diverse. I think Vermont is the second or third whitest state in the country. We look a lot like the community that surrounds us. We’ve probably used that as a bit of a crutch over the years, which is to say, “Well, this is hard, and we’re not based in Brooklyn, and if we were, we’d probably look different.” 

The same is true in our franchise community. While the franchise community is more diverse than our headquarters, again, more work needs to be done. And then the third area is around our suppliers and supply chain. 

We had been in the process of kicking off a series of internal working groups focused on franchise community hiring, recruiting, retaining, and supply chain. That had been planned and in the works for months. In some ways, I wish that this work had started earlier. On the other hand, it now has the attention and juice underneath it to really move it forward. 

It sounds like the work that you’ve already done allowed you, as a company, to be able to put out a statement like that. 

I’ve talked with some of my peers, who sit in companies around the country. There’s been a lot of talk back and forth around who’s doing what and how it’s been received. And I think there has been some hesitancy that some companies feel, like, “Well, we don’t have a pedigree on this. We don’t have a background on these issues. We haven’t built the network.”

And I guess what I would say is, we can’t let what we’ve done in the past limit what we do moving forward. Because if all we’re going to do is do what we’ve done, we’re stuffed. 

So you’re an ice cream company, but you’re willing to talk about issues other than ice cream. 

Yeah. Somebody asked me the other day, “You’re an ice cream company. What permission do you have to do this?” And I think, Why isn’t everyone else doing it? Yes, an ice cream company can do it, and everyone else can as well. Why not an ice cream company?

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