The Politics of Ben & Jerry’s

Life is full of contradictions and grey areas.  I am a big fan of Ben & Jerry’s, the company and the ice cream.  Back when I was fresh out of college, a group of friends and I serendipitously ended up meeting at the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, VT the day after a Grateful Dead show.  The company made an impression on me.  They made an effort to be good to the environment and give back to society.  I always thought that if I ever had a company, I’d want to run it like Ben & Jerry.  I still feel that way today.

While on vacation last month, I stopped into a Ben & Jerry’s in upstate New York.  While sitting eating ice cream with my kids, I noticed a poster on the wall espousing the “progressive values” of the company.

The poster read. (as copied from the Ben & Jerry’s/Unilever Web Site)

Leading With Progressive Values Across Our Business

We have a progressive, nonpartisan social mission that seeks to meet human needs and eliminate injustices in our local, national and international communities by integrating these concerns into our day-to-day business activities. Our focus is on children and families, the environment and sustainable agriculture on family farms.

  1. Capitalism and the wealth it produces do not create opportunity for everyone equally. We recognize that the gap between the rich and the poor is wider than at anytime since the 1920’s. We strive to create economic opportunities for those who have been denied them and to advance new models of economic justice that are sustainable and replicable.
  2. By definition, the manufacturing of products creates waste. We strive to minimize our negative impact on the environment.
  3. The growing of food is overly reliant on the use of toxic chemicals and other methods that are unsustainable. We support sustainable and safe methods of food production that reduce environmental degradation, maintain the productivity of the land over time, and support the economic viability of family farms and rural communities.
  4. We seek and support nonviolent ways to achieve peace and justice. We believe government resources are more productively used in meeting human needs than in building and maintaining weapons systems.
  5. We strive to show a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.

As I reflected on these words and how my politics have evolved over the years, I found myself in agreement with all of these statements.  With one big exception, the conclusion drawn from the first sentence – “Capitalism and the wealth it produces do not create opportunity for everyone equally”.

To be a progressive means to believe that capitalism creates inequality, and believe that this is a bad thing.  Further, that inequality needs to be corrected by government, or in this case, the actions of a corporation.  To be a conservative means that you also agree that capitalism creates inequality, but believe that it’s OK.  That the freedom to succeed or fail reigns supreme.  Local communities, charities, and limited government action should address any inequities that exist.  Libertarians are even more Darwinian and simply don’t care that capitalism creates inequality.

There it was.  It was truth.  Capitalism does create inequality.  On the wall of an ice cream shop in upstate New York.  Scrawled on a poster with a pink ice cream cone on it, was the essential difference between conservative and progressive philosophy.  Capitalism causes inequality.  And from a conservative perspective – that’s OK.

How could I support an organization that believes that capitalism creates a world that needs to be “corrected”? This is the challenge of partisanship.  The nuance. There are real choices for us in every election.  Fundamental differences.  But there is also tons of grey.

I respect conservative champions like George Will, but don’t believe that things are always black & white.  In his address to CPAC 2010, Mr. Will argued that the premise of the progressive agenda is government dependence.  I don’t believe that.  I think its kind of silly to even think that.  I believe that the progressive agenda truly mirrors much of what is contained in the Ben & Jerry’s value statement.  Progressives want to make the world a better place and believe that government is the ultimate tool to do so.  It’s not a conspiracy to consolidate power it’s just a huge difference of opinion.

At the same time, as conservatives, how can we not support a company or an agenda that champions reduction of waste, protection of the environment, respect for human beings, and non-violence?

Partisanship is complicated.  In many ways it muddies the water.  Then I remember Ben & Jerry’s.  And remember that capitalism and progressive values don’t always have to be enemies. And that I can eat good ice cream, wear tie-dye t-shirts with cows on them, and still be a conservative.

I will keep eating their ice cream, and I hope that more entrepreneurs start companies like Ben & Jerry’s.

What do you think?  Guest Blogger Jeff

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One response to “The Politics of Ben & Jerry’s

  1. Maureen Williams

    Nice to know that it’s possible to have a strong social mission that benefits society and still be successful capitalists. Ben & Jerry (and their shareholders) are making a !@#ton of money operating that capitalistic company in a “responsible” (as they’ve defined it) way that lives up to the values they espouse. Good for them !! This is a is a credit to them and a fine example of what the power of capitalism can do if that power is used for good. We’ll leave it to the vegans and Michelle Obama to determine whether their product should be banned as the pure evil (and yet so so delicious) thing it is.

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