By Elizabeth Anderson Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Ben and Jerry co-founder: profits and sustainability do mix

Jerry Greenfield tells MT that entrepreneurs should be socially responsible to be successful.

It’s a question many start-ups will be scratching their heads over: how do you make money from a sustainable business?

Jerry Greenfield, the socially-conscious co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, is hoping to quash the assumption that being socially responsible dents your profit margins. After 30 years selling ice-cream with social messages, he’s looking for the next business to take up the cause.

‘A common perception is that making your business sustainable takes away from your ability to be profitable. That’s a false assumption. What Ben and Jerry’s has learned over the years is that the more involved in communities you are, and the more caring you are, the more successful the business is,’ he told MT.

So what makes an ethical business? Jerry says it involves looking at all parts of the operation. ‘You need to think about the products you’re making, how you source your materials and how you manufacture the products.  Then you try to factor social and environmental concerns into those activities.’

Ben and Jerry’s is one of the more successful ethical start-ups. Started in a Vermont petrol station in 1978 with $12,000, old school friends Jerry and Ben Cohen built it into a $13.5m company before selling it to Unilever in 2000.

The quirky business has always had a strong social message. Even though the founding partners no longer have responsibility in the day-to-day running of the company, they still give their backing to environmental and political campaigns. In the last decade, the tubs have carried messages which support gay marriage and campaign against nuclear spending.

Along with its distinct flavours, like Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, Jerry attributes the business’s success to its ethical focus:  ‘I think people pay attention to Ben and Jerry’s because some of our campaigns are very untypical for businesses to become involved in. How many speak up about issues like same sex marriage or social justice?’

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