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Ben & Jerry’s founder gives business scoop

Sam Stryker | Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ice cream and social change are an unusual pair, but that has not stopped the world famous 33-year-old Ben & Jerry’s from combining the two to make waves in the sustainability movement.

Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield, who will speak at Notre Dame this evening, said the principal of sustainability is particularly important to Ben & Jerry’s. Environmentally favorable practices actually benefit corporations, he said in an interview with The Observer.

“Up until a few years ago, the conventional business wisdom was that if you wanted to have a sustainable business, that it would take away from the business’s ability to be successful financially,” Greenfield said. “I think that has been proven completely wrong.”

Greenfield said he sees the business world as an incredibly powerful force in changing the status quo in America.

“It is one of the major groups that influences how things go in the country. Having all that power also brings with it responsibility,” he said. “I think business has a responsibility to look out not just for its own self interest, which business has traditionally done, but to look out for the common good.”

The future of sustainability is bright because of present and future environmental leadership being taken in the business world, Greenfield said.

“I think it’s not only true for students of the future but for business leaders today,” he said. “You’ll find a lot of businesses really taking a lead with issues of sustainability.”

Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by multinational conglomerate Unilever in 2000. Greenfield said it is a challenge for a socially responsible corporation to maintain an autonomous identity under this ownership.

“It takes ongoing vigilance and continual energy to strive to maintain an independent spirit,” he said. “I think it is helpful that the company has a heritage of being somewhat anti-corporate and anti-authoritarian.”

Being owned by a conglomerate is not without its perks though, Greenfield said.

“The benefits of being owned by a bigger company are that you have the potential to have bigger change and to reach more people and have a bigger impact,” he said.

One of the changes being part of a conglomeration has made possible is Ben & Jerry’s commitment to become a 100 percent fair trade company by 2013.

Involvement in social concerns such as fair trade practices is Greenfield’s favorite part of his job. He said engagement in such ambitions is beneficial to corporations as it helps them stand out in the business world.

“For many businesses and corporations, they exist simply to make money,” Greenfield said. “They become involved in issues that are designed to make them more money and not for the general welfare of the country.”

Patrons recognize when a company is socially responsible, and this affects spending behavior, Greenfield said.

“I think consumers really appreciate when businesses are trying to do things that are not just to make more money but to try and bring about a better world,” he said. “When they find those companies that are doing those things they want to support them.”

In addition to his passion for social responsibility, Greenfield said Ben & Jerry’s products, particularly his favorite flavor, Heath Bar Crunch, remain a staple in his life.

“I still eat an absurd amount of ice cream,” he said.

Students should look to combine passions outside of business with what they look to accomplish in their careers, Greenfield said.

“I think it is extremely helpful to be doing something you are passionate about, to not just be doing something that you might just think is a clever idea,” he said.

This enthusiasm is often what drives people to push through challenges in business, Greenfield said.

“My experience in business is that if you run into difficult times, along the way not everything goes that smoothly,” he said. “If you are doing something you are really passionate about that you really believe in, that will help you get through those difficult times.”

Greenfield will speak tonight at 7 p.m. in the Jordan Auditorium at the Mendoza College of Business.