Social Responsibility at Ben & Jerry’s

Learn about the man behind Ben & Jerry’s dream for social responsibility in business and his dedication to maintain authenticity.

| January 2014

  • "The business Ben, Jerry, and Jeff built sprang from these values. Selling ice cream wasn't their real purpose."
    Photo by Fotolia/Lsantilli
  • "Ice Cream Social," by Brad Edmondson, explores the ups and downs of the once independently-owned Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.
    Cover courtesy Berrett-Koehler Publishers

In Ice Cream Social (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), Brad Edmondson and Jeff Furman give an inside look into the successes and failures of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream from its beginning. In this excerpt from Chapter 1, see how the core value of social responsibility took root and how it has stayed a lasting part of the company.

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Jeff Furman: Holding Ben & Jerry’s Together

In this story, the good guys and the bad guys are not always where you might expect them to be. For example, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are widely known in business as pioneers of social responsibility. But the people who wrote the sale agreements that preserved Ben & Jerry’s as a socially responsible business were elite corporate lawyers, about as far from Vermont hippies as you can get. Several Unilever executives have become so enthusiastic about the drive for linked prosperity that they have said and done risky things to promote it. And the social mission’s most steadfast champion—the only person who consistently fought for it at every stage of the story—describes himself as an activist first, and adds that he has little interest in being a business executive.

Jeff Furman’s coworkers often describe him as “the ampersand in Ben & Jerry’s.” He became friends with Ben and Jerry years before they scooped their first cone. He helped them write the company’s first business plan in 1977 by borrowing a similar plan from a pizza joint and substituting the word “cone” whenever that plan used the word “slice.” He did a lot of different tasks for the company as it struggled to get going; he joined the company’s board in 1982, and he was a key contributor during its decade of rapid growth. He is still on the board in 2014, and since 2010 he has been its chair.

Jeff really is a lawyer and an accountant, but not in an ordinary sense. One Unilever executive refers to him as “a lawyer in disguise.” He is a balding guy with a fringe of long hair that he tucks behind his ears. He smiles a lot, trims his beard only occasionally, wears a T-shirt every day—no matter how cold it is—and spends his time working with not-for-profit groups and businesses that have progressive values. And he didn’t even meet Ben or Jerry until he was thirty.

Jeff got a degree in accounting in 1965 and a degree in law in 1969, but as the 1970s began, he was not exactly on a career track. In fact, he couldn’t keep a job. He was a parole officer until he was given a gun and told to prevent a suspect from fleeing out the back door. He couldn’t even bring himself to load the thing. Boston University fired him for spreading the word about an antiwar protest. What he did like was working for the Workers Defense League, representing blue-collar folks and conscientious objectors. That experience gave him strong feelings of compassion for people who hold entry-level jobs. It was a big reason why he later suggested that Ben & Jerry’s adopt the policy of paying the company’s top employees no more than five times its starting salary, and it is why the company continues to pay a living wage to its employees today.

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