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BEN COHEN - FOUNDER OF BEN AND JERRY'S ICE CREAM
Ben Cohen Interview With Gabrielle Reilly 

It is my pleasure to welcome Ben Cohen to The Global Townhall.  Ben is, of course, the "Ben" in Ben and Jerry's ice cream.  Ben has spent his life helping others and making a lot of money doing so... and the more you make, the more you can help, which is exactly what Ben did.  So how did Ben do it? 

Ben checks in with us on socially responsible businesses and offers a great alternative for doing Fair Trade internationally to move away from the sweat shop paradigm.  So here is Part 1 of my interview with Ben Cohen.

 

Gabrielle Reilly:  What do you think attributed to the great success of Ben and Jerry's ice cream? 

Ben Cohen:  Well, of course you got to have great ice cream so that was the first part.  Our ice cream always has a lot of big chunks of cookies and candies in it- that was something that was very unusual in the industry at the time.  Essentially, we were making ice cream the way people want to eat it. Other ice cream companies were making ice cream that ran really well through the production machinery.  What we did was modified our production to give people the ice cream they wanted. 


I think that the other thing that really attributed to the success of Ben and Jerry's, because there is a bunch of really good ice cream out there, is the social mission of the company.  The company decided that it was going to use its power as a business to improve the quality of life for the various communities we were a part of- local, national and international.   We found innovative ways to integrate social concerns into our day to day business and activities, which other companies weren't doing at the time.  That really built a strong relationship between us and our customers; people's customer loyalty made the company what it is.

 

Gabrielle Reilly:  So how can companies be more socially responsible? 

Ben Cohen:  There are lots of ways.  The first thing is to identify what the needs are in your community and then what your needs are as a business, and find the overlaps.  At Ben and Jerry's we always needed to come up with new flavors and sources for ingredients and we were able to find places to source those ingredients where there would be a positive social impact by just sourcing them in that fashion.  One example is we found a bakery in inner city New York that was making a whole bunch of different pastries and we wanted a product they made that we could use as an ingredient in our ice cream. Just by buying from them we would benefit this bakery that was run by a nonprofit whose purpose was to get formerly unemployable people back into the workforce and help them become productive parts of society.  They were dealing with former drug addicts or ex convicts or people that were formerly homeless.  We found that they could make these special chewy fudgy brownies we then used to flavor our fudge brownie ice cream.  We bought millions and millions of dollars a year of those brownie bits from them.  So that is one example.  Other examples in terms of sourcing would be fair trade ingredients.  Commodities, you know coffee, chocolate and a whole bunch of other ones to be sourced from small farmers in developing countries around the world that are often paid below poverty wages.  By buying fair trade certified, we pay them a fair wage for the products that they sell to us and we still make a profit selling them- just by doing our day to day business it helps to solve the problem of poverty.

 

Gabrielle Reilly:  Is there a fair trade organization available for businesses here in the US is there? 

Ben Cohen:  Yes, absolutely.  There is an organization in the US called Trans Fair and you can Google it.  Yes, it is really growing at a tremendous rate.  I think fair trade products in the US are growing at about 20% a year, but we are quite a bit behind Europe, where there is a whole lot more fair trade products sold but we are on the same path.


 

Gabrielle Reilly:  That's good news.   On unemployment... considering the failing infrastructure of levies, bridges, sewerage, electrical grids, etc, do you think we should be stimulating the economy by putting people back to work by repairing much needed infrastructure? 

Ben Cohen:  Well, it is always good to improve your infrastructure and any time you can provide more employment for people that is good, but I certainly disagree with the idea that the social implications of business is only limited to employing people.  I don't think that scratches the surface.  When a business employs somebody it's a two-way deal and a business is getting as least as much as they are giving, but there are just so many other methods for business to combine social needs with day to day activities.


 

Gabrielle Reilly:  Do you have a list of those or are you going to write them down? 

Ben Cohen:  Well there is a book.  Jerry and I wrote a book a while back called Ben and Jerry's Double Dip How to Lead With Your Values and Make Money Too.  More examples from our ice cream history would be in terms of selling ice cream.  Ben and Jerry's has a bunch of franchise scoop shops around the country and we ended up setting up a bunch of those shops that are owned by non-profits, where the profits that go to the scoop shop operator are going back to support these nonprofit organizations.  The people who work at these scoop shops tend to be at risk teenagers. 

 

 

Gabrielle Reilly:  What do you read to keep up with world events on a day to day basis?

 Ben Cohen:  I'm mostly keeping up on the web.  The New York Times would be one of them, Alternet.org is another, www.truth-out.org/ is an organization that sends me daily emails with the headlines.

 

Gabrielle Reilly:  I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of this interview with Ben Cohen and please check back with us for Part 2.

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