Story at a glance
- Ben Cohen says that companies should look toward corporate activism as a way to strengthen their business.
- Ben & Jerry’s, one of the first businesses to support the Black Lives Matter movement, beat companies like Google and Nike in issuing support.
- “A business can use its power to work to solve social problems, to advocate politically on issues...and still make a bunch of money doing it,” he said.
Ice cream titan Ben and Jerry’s was one of the first companies to issue a lengthy statement via Twitter in support of the Black Lives Matter civil rights protests ahead of its contemporaries, preceding the likes of Apple, Nike, Adidas and Amazon.
Since then, the company has issued multiple statements advocating for defunding police departments and openly calling for the passage of the BREATHE Act.
Between this progressive and outspoken social stance alongside a pandemic that relegated people indoors, sales soared.
Founder and former CEO Ben Cohen said that this stance was planned well before renewed civil right protests swept the nation. Moving forward, he thinks that more businesses should take similar outspoken stances.
“Corporations are members of our society just like people are,” he told The Hill. “If you believe in justice, you have to stand up for justice, and you have to make your voice heard...and business has always been very political, they’ve taken extreme political stands, the difference is that they tend to always do it covertly and in their own narrow self interest.”
Citing fellow companies including Seventh Generation, Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s, Cohen disputes the standard narrative that profits are incompatible with social justice.
“A business can use its power to work to solve social problems, to advocate politically on issues...and still make a bunch of money doing it.”
Similar to sentiments expressed by President Biden, Cohen said he thinks the majority of Americans believe in justice, and that for a company to take a public stand in favor of equality, consumers respond.
Reports on evolving consumer trends indicate that a larger portion of consumers — especially younger customers — want to see corporations take a side within social justice issues, be it speaking out against Georgia’s restrictive voter law or supporting the #MeToo movement.
Cohen notes that there are both external and internal methods a company can have a positive impact on pressing social problems.
He recommends incentivizing the creation of a more diverse staff and leadership team by making compensation and bonuses dependent on hitting selected quotas. Having a more diverse board of directors is also critical to sustaining a diverse company.
While Ben & Jerry’s is still working on improving the diversity among its staff worldwide, it’s unique board of directors who work exclusively to preserve the social justice core of the brand is composed of multiple people of color and women.
“We are really happy that that racially diverse board has helped lead us in the direction we are going,” said Dave Rapaport, the company’s Global Social Mission Officer.
Post-Ben & Jerry’s, Cohen continues his advocacy work with the foundation of the Campaign to End Qualified Immunity, a coalition of organizations, business people, and politicians dedicated to the broad repeal of qualified immunity — the statute that prohibits a law enforcement offer from being sued for violating an individual’s rights.
Lawsuits may only be brought against a police officer if they violated a “clearly established” law.
The removal of qualified immunity on a national level is a key part of the Justice in Policing Act of 2020.
Cohen regards this statute as one of the roots of systemic racism and policing.
“It’s about the issue of accountability, and qualified immunity prevents holding cops accountable,” he said. Some jurisdictions, including New York City, Colorado and New Mexico have passed legislation closing the loophole.
While Cohen is working on this outside of Ben & Jerry’s, Rapaport noted that the company supports the repeal of qualified immunity.
“Business has become the most powerful force in our society,” Cohen concluded. “If you have that much power and you’re not going to use it for the public good, the public good is going to kind of disintegrate.”