ONCE UPON A TIME, BUSINESS existed “to meet people’s needs.” Back then, the church was “the most powerful force in society.” Later, the nation-state took its place. Both institutions’ “reason for being was the good of society.” But in our time, business has taken control, and it just looks out for itself. That’s why we’re in such desperate need of “social change.” Luckily, a hardy band of public-spirited and progressive businesses, traitors to their class, are leading a crusade to effect that change.
This bedtime story serves as a philosophy of life for ice-cream makers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. They have collected these and other profundities in a volume appropriately titled Double Dip. In addition to the main text, the book includes letters from consumers, testimony from employees and like-minded business leaders, and supposed conversations between Ben and Jerry (from which we learn that in their tactical views, Ben is the Hillary to Jerry’s Bill).
The book is clear enough in explaining how a “values-led business” can integrate social concerns into its standard procedures, rather than treating them as a mere add-on. Ben & Jerry’s donates 7.5 percent of its profits, or five times as much as the average business, to various causes. On a more innovative note, the company attempts to incorporate its values into its sourcing, financing, franchising, management of human resources, and, of course, marketing. Packaging, for instance, can include propaganda for defense cuts and the Children’s Defense Fund. The company also forms partnerships with nonprofits to provide job training for homeless people.
Ben and Jerry are less successful in explaining why businessmen should want to be “values-led,” in their sense, in the first place. Why, for instance, is it so important that the company buy its milk in Vermont? Another company had contracted to buy all the organic milk made in Vermont, so Ben & Jerry’s had to get the purchaser to agree to buy some milk from New York and leave enough Vermont milk for them. Even if boosting milk production in Vermont is an end in itself, it’s hard to see how this arrangement accomplishes it. Nor is there much evidence that Ben & Jerry’s needs to convert to purely organic sourcing to keep America’s sperm counts high (a discredited claim they base on the sensationalistic book Our Stolen Future).
And for all their hostility toward less enlightened corporations-a group that appears to include every company except Aveda, the Body Shop, Patagonia, and similar yuppie boutiques-it isn’t clear that Ben & Jerry’s creates more “social benefit” than other firms. Isn’t a company that makes medical equipment and looks at nothing but its bottom line at least as beneficial to society as one that clogs consumers’ arteries with high- fat desserts? Don’t defense contractors, whom Ben and Jerry consider unspeakably venal, provide an indispensable service to the public?
As a business case study, the book does serve one useful purpose, demolishing beyond refutation the notion that business leaders have some special ability to analyze the vast matrix of interactions and transactions that comprise a modern economy by virtue of their position within that matrix. Simply put, Ben and Jerry don’t understand markets. When milk prices dropped in 1991, the company paid farmers a higher price on the theory that “this year’s milk isn’t worth less to us than last year’s.” They aren’t very comfortable with competition either: “Ben felt there had to be some social benefit to Ben & Jerry’s to justify asking people to buy our ice cream instead of someone else’s.” It apparently doesn’t occur to them that price signals and competition might themselves provide some social benefits.
Unsurprisingly, their politics are no more sophisticated than their economics: “It occurred to us that only by ending the Cold War could we eliminate the public’s willingness to put so much money into the military. And we could achieve true security by teaching people that we had more things in common with the Russian people than differences.” Toward that end, Ben & Jerry’s started advocating “redirecting 1 percent of the military budget to peace-through-understanding activities.” A few years afterward, notes Ben, “the Cold War ended. Remarkable what a few well-intentioned people can accomplish, isn’t it?” I’m not sure he’s joking.
Ben & Jerry’s other political stands are just as predictably liberal. They are for strict fuel-efficiency standards and against bovine growth hormones, even though a strong case can be made that the former policy increases road fatalities and the latter keeps poor consumers paying too much for milk. Donating money to a symphony orchestra is described as an attempt to “fill in some of the gaps that are left by government’s failure to address the needs of the people.” I agree with Ben’s argument, however, that the company ought to be able to make personnel decisions on the basis of “values alignment” (though I’d extend that freedom to companies with different religious missions). In fact, in a free market all sorts of folly can find a niche.
But folly appears unlikely to catch on more broadly. The problem with granola capitalism is it takes too many evenings. Businessmen have enough on their minds without having to figure out how to promote solar power or whether using Oreos as an ingredient is immoral (it is: they’re produced by cigarette maker RJR Nabisco). Nor do most customers feel the need for a “spiritual connection” with businesses they patronize, as Ben and Jerry seem to think.
They have, however, convinced this reader that every economic decision we make, no matter how minute, should be made with an eye to its political and social implications. I’m switching to Häagen-Dazs.
Ramesh Ponnuru is the National Review’s national reporter.