Ice Cream with a Different Flavor: Ben & Jerry's Offers Taste of Productivity, Social Activism, Fun

Article excerpt

Want a definition for decadence? Try Wavy Gravy, one of Ben & Jerry's recently introduced ice-cream flavors: caramel-Brazil nut-cashew ice cream with chocolate-hazel nut-fudge swirl and roasted almonds, delivered in the first-ever tie-dyed ice-cream container.

Wavy Gravy, of course, was the emcee at the original Woodstock Festival in 1969, one of the Merry Pranksters from Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and as suitable an introduction as any to the zany corporate culture of Ben & Jerry's.

While it came to prominence during the self-absorbed 1980s, Ben & Jerry's quickly earned a reputation as a kind of countercultural phenomenon. The company earned high marks in many quarters for its enlightened employee-relations policies and highly developed social conscience, if tinged, at times, by a hint of decadence.

"They certainly do have a reputation for going the extra mile in terms of corporate responsibility. ... They're also very well known for their corporate giving and their efforts to share with the wider community," said Kenneth Goodpaster, who holds the Koch chair in business ethics at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul.

Wavy Gravy, a clown prince of the 1960s acid generation, today teaches circus skills and performing arts at Camp Winarainbow, his summer spot in California for disadvantaged youth. He's one of the beneficiaries of Ben & Jerry's social activism. Of Wavy Gravy ice cream, he has said, "I'm so excited about being a living flavor, a politically correct ice cream." And his camp receives contributions from profits on the sales of the ice cream that bears his name.

Ben & Jerry's is a model of commercial productivity, social activism and fun'

Ice cream-yogurt entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield founded their empire in 1978 in a converted gas station in Burlington, Vt. The childhood friends started with $12,000 -- $4,000 of it borrowed -- an old-fashioned rock salt ice-cream maker and a correspondence course in ice-cream making from Penn State University (they earned a perfect score, they say; it was an open-book test).

Their first community event was a free summer movie festival in which they projected movies on the outside wall of the gas station.

In 1985, Ben & Jerry's went public and is listed on the NASDAQ exchange. In 1993, company sales were $140 million. Throughout the company's development, Cohen and Greenfield have combined natural ingredients with social concern. In 1988 they created a "statement of mission," their philosophy of balancing product mission, social mission and economic mission.

The product mission calls for all-natural ingredients and a wide variety of innovative flavors. The social mission "actively recognizes the central role that business plays in the structure of society by initiating innovative ways to improve the qualify of life" at local, national and international levels. The economic mission requires "a sound financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our shareholders and creating career opportunities and financial rewards for our employees."

Ben & Jerry's history includes milestones both serious and quirky. The first ice cream they named for a rock legend came out in 1987: Cherry Garcia, named for Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.

That year, too, the company began using its ice-cream waste to feed a pig farm in Stowe, Vt. A company news note reports that "pigs go wild over all flavors except mint with Oreo cookie (seems pigs don't like mint). …