How Ben & Jerry rose from Vermont hippies selling ice cream to Palestinian activists
Before they were woke, they were clueless.
In 1978, when they launched Ben & Jerry’s from an abandoned gas station in Burlington, VT, Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had no idea what they were doing.
The two hippies, who were born four days apart, had become fast friends when they were forced to take a gym class designed for overweight students at the Merrick Avenue Middle School in Nassau County in 1963.
By the time they moved to Vermont in 1977, and settled on ice cream as a livelihood, they were both 27 and college dropouts.
“Basically, we’d failed at everything we tried,” said Greenfield, addressing a group of university students on Long Island after their company turned 40 in 2018.
Years after they graduated high school in 1969, Greenfield found himself sharing an apartment in the East Village with Cohen, who had dropped out of several colleges that he had enrolled in to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Greenfield had twice failed to get into medical schools. The two eventually drifted to Vermont, where Cohen got a job teaching pottery to emotionally troubled children near Lake Champlain.
Their initial idea was to open a bagel shop, but when that proved too complicated and the equipment too costly, they looked to ice cream. They split the $5 correspondence course fee in ice-cream making from Penn State, and each scraped together $4,000 for the start-up.
Settling in Burlington, a college town, where they could afford the rent and count on a steady supply of customers, the two friends started Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and created a revolution. Not only were they producing high-quality ice cream — their first flavor was chocolate chip cookie dough — and buying their supplies exclusively from local dairy farmers, but their counter-culture quirkiness and commitment to grassroots social justice initiatives made them local heroes.
When Pillsbury, the corporate parent of ice cream rival Haagen Dazs, tried to scuttle their first distribution deal, fearing it could hurt sales of their own brand, the friends got national exposure with one of their public relations campaigns: “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?”
After three years in business, they were on the cover of Time magazine, which hailed their ice cream, with iconic flavors such as “Cherry Garcia,” as the best in the world.
Today, the two are worth $150 million each, but are still courting controversy in the name of social justice.
While they no longer have operational control of Ben & Jerry’s, which they sold to the London-based conglomerate Unilever in 2000, they recently called the decision to boycott sales to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, one of the most important the company has made in its 43-year history. The boycott decision was made by the ice cream company’s board, which retains autonomy over its brand and business strategy. Unilever does not support the boycott, said CEO Alan Jope in a letter to US Jewish groups this week.
The boycott, which began July 19, unleashed a political backlash in the US and the Middle East, with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett calling it “a glaring anti-Israel measure.” In the US, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma called for a ban on all Ben & Jerry’s sales in his state. New York Congressman Lee Zeldin tweeted that the boycott is about “bowing to the liberal woke mob and anti-Israel, anti-Semitic hate.” Last week, the pension fund for New York’s state workers warned Unilever it might restrict investments as a result of the ban.
But Cohen and Greenfield have stood firm with their six-member board’s decision. They no longer sit on the ice cream company’s board of directors.
“As our company began to expand internationally, Israel was one of our first overseas markets. We were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel,” wrote Cohen and Greenfield in an opinion article for the New York Times earlier this week. “But it’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we’ve opposed policies of the US government. As such, we unequivocally support the decision of the company to end business in the occupied territories.”
Not only have Cohen and Greenfield backed the boycott, but they have donated hundreds of thousands in company profits over the years to groups working to promote Palestinian rights.
Philanthropy has always been the cornerstone of Cohen and Greenfield’s business model. “Business has the responsibility to give back to its community,” said Cohen, who coined the phrase “caring capitalism” in the 1980s, and started the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation in 1985. The foundation commits 7.5 percent of the company’s pre-tax profits to philanthropy, which translates to just over $3 million per year for a company that has grown to become one of the world’s biggest ice cream brands, churning out more than one million pints a day. Cohen and Greenfield, both 70, still occupy board seats on their foundation.
“We realized the best way to embody the company’s progressive values and the foundation’s commitment to the power of the grassroots was to empower employees to participate in grantmaking,” the group’s website states.
Most of those grants range from $50 to $1,000 to local schools, unions and environmental groups from some of the company’s 1,600 employees in Vermont.
But while their early efforts were local, they have now gone far beyond a simple mission of working for social change in the Green Mountain State.
Long before the company they founded announced its controversial boycott earlier this month, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation had already spent millions on global campaigns for social justice, increasingly directing their largest grants to groups that promote refugee and land rights around the world.
To that end, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation has doled out more than $100,000 in the last two years to the Oakland Institute think tank, founded by Palestinian land rights activist Anuradha Mittal, who is also chair of the ice cream company’s board and vice president of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.
Mittal, 54, is one of the architects behind the company’s boycott in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, where there are more than 600,000 Jews scattered in about 140 settlements. The West Bank and East Jerusalem have been under Israeli control since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Opponents of Israeli policy consider the settlements illegal, and want to grant land rights to Palestinians.
Mittal has long been a fierce critic of Israel’s policies in the region. Her think tank, which includes Jeff Furman, a longtime Ben & Jerry’s executive on its board, supported a controversial human rights group in the West Bank in 2017 with cash from the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. The BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights received a $3,000 grant from the foundation in 2017, tax filings show.
Last year, the European Union pulled nearly $2 million worth of funding from BADIL after it refused to sign an “anti-terror” clause in its funding contract. The clause stated that none of the EU’s funds would be diverted to members of terrorist organizations, such as the military wings of Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Ben & Jerry’s grant was used to finance “a bold multimedia project on land rights to mark 50 years since the Six-Day War and Israel’s occupation,” according to the Oakland Institute’s 2017 annual report. “Palestine: For Land and Life” documented individual stories of “marginalization and struggle.”
“Across the West Bank, farmers lost their land, livelihoods, and even their ability to visit their families when the separation wall was constructed,” according to the report. “Under occupation, they also face massive water shortages as Israel diverts water from the Jordan River…to Israel and its settlements.”
Although the boycott has spawned a firestorm of criticism, with opponents branding Mittal as well as Greenfield and Cohen — both Jewish — as anti-Semitic, they are unphased.
Mittal tweeted Friday that in spite of “violent threats” she continues to stand behind the boycott as do Greenfield and Cohen.
“We believe business is among the most powerful entities in society,” they wrote. “We believe that companies have a responsibility to use their power and influence to advance the wider common good.”
In fact, from their inception as a company, ice cream flavors were themselves designed to address that common good. “Peace Pops” — sticks of chocolate chip and cookie dough ice-cream covered in a chocolate coating — sent an anti-war message in 1988 to protest the First Gulf War. The company called for 1 percent of the US national defense budget to be set aside for peace initiatives. In 2015, they renamed their classic cookie dough flavor to “I Dough I Dough” to celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage.
Despite their success in business, both Cohen and Greenfield live in relatively modestly with homes in Williston, a Burlington suburb, surrounded by lush green fields,
“People used to laugh at us when we spoke to business groups,” Cohen told a group of business students at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY, three years ago.
“Now, we’ve been mainstreamed,” Greenfield added.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchet