Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream - Socially Responsible, If Not Organic - No rGBH - 1% To Peace - A Challenge To Mega-Corporations - An Incremental Move Toward Human And Ecological Health

Healthful Diet and Lifestyle, Environmental Toxins, And Multiple Chemical Sensitivities - July 5, 1998


I just read a simplistic and misleading criticism of the Ben & Jerry's brand of ice cream.  It was about how Ben & Jerry's promotes itself as environmentally responsible when in fact it uses ingredients that are produced using numerous synthetic fertilizers and herbicides.  Compared to ice cream produced 100% organically, it is misleading for Ben & Jerry's to present itself as among the most socially and environmentally responsible brands on the market.  But I don't think that this is what Ben & Jerry's was doing.  The organic ice cream market share is miniscule, controlling perhaps 1 or 2 percent of all ice cream sales. Ben & Jerry's is sold in all of the giant supermarket chains and therefore is recognized by nearly every obese, unconscious, mainstream consumer in the country.  I think Ben & Jerry's marketing scheme is more one of a goad to other giant ice cream companies than one of deceit toward true organics.  Compared to other leading brands, Ben & Jerry's is by far the most responsible choice.  For instance, it donates a percentage of its profits to peace activist groups.  With this solitary fact, the company places itself light years ahead of its competition.  God bless them for advertising their donation practices!  Encouraging consumers to make a direct connection between their choice of ice cream and the improvement of one's social environment is a concept that all other large food manufacturers are steering wide and clear of.  In this light, Ben & Jerry's can be seen as an effective and much-needed activist.  Similarly, Ben & Jerry's advertises the fact that it does not use the hormone rGBH (pdf) (which increase milk production in cows).  Though I am sure there are a dozen other hormones and synthetic additives that the ice cream uses, the very fact that Ben & Jerry's is raising the issue of hormone use places itself well ahead of its competition.  For 99% of international conglomerated agribusiness concerns food production is not something that customers are encouraged to give conscious, critical thought to.  In order for big industries to continue their abusive and unsustainable production practices, it is necessary for them to keep their customers in the dark.  By Ben & Jerry's merely raising the issue, it directly calls into question the practices of the mega-corporations that dominate the marketplace. Ben & Jerry's also places itself in the moral position of eventually identifying additional hormones or poor production practices and dispensing with them as well.  Though in the world of organic production Ben & Jerry's claim is small and limited, in the world of conglomerated food production it has created quite a stir.  Food disparagement lawsuits have been brought against Ben & Jerry's by major milk producers.  They say it is bad for business to make claims about hormone use.  On a state-by-state basis, the ice cream is proving victorious in the courts.  Although we need to overhaul food disparagement laws entirely--with the concept of free speech being applied thoroughly to the issue of food-- Ben & Jerry's victories are indeed cause for celebration.  So, in sum, I would disagree with the critical advertisement against Ben & Jerry's.  Buying Ben & Jerry's is not a hypocritical act.  Comparatively, it is an excellent brand.  But you should not feel completely exonerated of your social and environmental sins through its purchase.  There is a lot more that you and Ben & Jerry's could be doing.  Compared to organic brands, Ben & Jerry's advertising claims are far-fetched and overstated.  But Ben & Jerry's marketing referent, in my view, is not the organic brands, but the 95% market share of the synthetics-ridden, animal-cruel, mass-produced brands. 

While the urgency associated with a world ecosystem that is rapidly unraveling dictates that we make more drastic changes right now, we must see that 95% of the system is not responding to the calls for change.  In this light, the Ben & Jerry's brand, though having many shortcomings, is helpful in terms of our making at least an incremental move toward human and ecological health.       

Ben & Jerry's logo and pint container pictures. Activism link.


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