When Unilever took over Ben & Jerry’s, some were nervous about what a change of ownership would mean for the ice cream maker’s unique brand of corporate social responsibility and progressive character. In stepped Jostein Solheim, Ben and Jerry’s current CEO. Talking as one conscious capitalist company to another, Solheim ensued that Ben and Jerry’s would be free to continue in the direction it saw fit with the backing of Unilever’s resources but without its control. This worked and Solheim continues to be a model businessman and philanthropist.
Ask Solheim about what makes his business tick and he’ll tell you that Ben & Jerry’s practices a model they call “linked prosperity” which emphasizes that all stakeholders are important and connected in a way that is “circular and reinforcing.” The key is to pursue a higher purpose of empathy and social justice while taking care of everyone who’s involved, from the workers to the customers to the community.
Solheim says the importance of this vision and high purpose and it fueled his ascendancy to the leadership of Ben & Jerry’s while also making him into such a leader that he could protect and even expand the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.
In an interview, Solheim explained that “[Customers] want to understand our core beliefs and responsibilities and hold us to them – for example, what are we doing to address climate change? They become stakeholders in our company, and we don’t want to let them down. And the same is true for our farmers, our suppliers, employers, and NGO partners…” Solheim also points out that because of this customer demand, being socially responsible is not just the right thing to do but is also good business sense. One fact he likes to cite is that, according to a 2015 Nielsen survey, 66% of customers would pay more for products that benefited social causes.
Therefore, Ben & Jerry’s has continuously pushed the envelope, often staking ground at the forefront of social, economic, and environmental change. For his own employees, Solheim made sure that everyone was earning an annually adjusted living wage, a number that was $16.92 an hour in 2015- over double the national minimum wage. Other actions included holding listening tours with workers and focusing on inclusive hiring practices, especially on gender inequality.
For their customers, the company would go out of its way. One of the things that the leadership and workers are proud of is that “Ben & Jerry’s has been known to pick up a fan whose car has broken down and take him to work and show up to other fans’ workplaces to give away ice cream…” Furthermore, their customers appreciate their ethical sourcing, support for fair trade, and their advocacy for non-GMO labeling.
Solheim also worked to ensure Ben & Jerry’s was treating its vendors and communities in the most positive way possible. Under his leadership, the company gave away $1.8 million annually in grants through the Ben & Jerry Foundation, joined the COP21 climate conference, and registered with B Corps as a certified public-benefit corporation. In recognition, Solheim has been awarded the 2015 Mid-Market Social Impact Award and the 2016 Mid-Market CEO of the Year Award.