A few weeks back at the School of Management, Jerry Greenfield, cofounder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, was recounting company history. Before his talk, he stood between pizza boxes and brown gallon ice cream cartons in the atrium calling out available flavors and describing their ingredients with uncommon passion. After lunch was served he stood before the crowd and spoke, rocking a bit uneasily and sometimes pausing longer than one might expect, as if still surprised at the success of his company.
Greenfield’s talk touched on the ever-increasing role of business in today’s culture. He noted how what drives a society is often reflected in its architecture: look long into the past, he explained, and the most ornate buildings are religious. In more recent past, government buildings fill this space. And the buildings that command a city-scape now? They are commercial centers.
As a self-described child of the ’60s, Greenfield recalled with residual alarm the moment decades ago when he and Ben realized they had ceased to be ice cream men and had become businessmen. No longer scooping creamy goodness from behind their Burlington counter, their days were spent discussing financial statements with lawyers and accountants. Nothing could have been more appalling to two hippies. They almost walked from the company: business was antithetical to their principles; business cared about profits rather than people, viewed value solely in terms of money. But the counseling of a close friend urged them to reconsider: if you don’t like what business stands for or how it operates, he inquired, then why don’t you change it?
Ben and Jerry have created an impressive enterprise. Their initial public offering was open only to residents of Vermont, the first ever in-state IPO. One out of every 10 households purchased stock. Here was a mechanism to insure wealth stayed local. “I’d come to realize,” Greenfield explained, “that there is more to business than making profits. There is a spiritual dimension to business.” Rather than tossing out pocket change as a public relations afterthought, Ben & Jerry’s folded social and environmental concerns into the fundamental, quotidian practices of the business. Take their brownies, which they source from Greyston Bakery in Yonkers. Greyston provides employment and support services for those formerly homeless, or with substance abuse problems, or with chronic, untreated illness. “Greyston’s hiring policy?” Greenfield asked his audience. “They take anybody — anybody — off the street and train them. Now that is hard.”
That evening, Yale’s Jacob Hacker GRD ’00 stood in the basement of Labyrinth Books discussing the rapidly growing income gap between America’s richest and the rest of the population, a gap that began widening around the time Ben and Jerry themselves entered business. Using only a few statistics from his new book, “Winner Take-All Politics,” Hacker offered a disturbingly stark juxtaposition with Greenfield’s talk. For example, the top one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s richest — that is, one out of every 1,000 people — carries home one out of every eight dollars earned. Another good one: the wealthiest one percent of the U.S. population controls 40 percent of the country’s assets. This is more than the total assets held by the entire bottom 90 percent of earners in the U.S.
Sadly, not everybody agrees on the immorality of such inequity. Hacker quoted Senator Phil Gramm’s response when the SEC proposed modest regulatory changes in 2008: “Unless the water is crimson with the blood of investors, we don’t want [the SEC] engaging in any regulatory flights of fancy.”
Environmentalists and other social activists come down hard on business not because of stories like Jerry Greenfield’s, but because of stories like Jacob Hacker’s. “I mean — hey! — I’m a business man!” Jerry confided during his talk, averring that businesses and corporations themselves are neutral. They are nothing more than tools. But when people use the power of these tools without regard for social and environmental complexities, their single-minded pursuit of profit leaves little but destruction. The very institution of democracy is arguably threatened by the predominant attitude of business culture.
Having adequately depressed his audience, and without the cheerful support of ice cream, Hacker did offer a sliver of optimism. He noted that business is not pre-political, that public dissent can lead to change. Hearkening back to the Progressive Era, history suggests that change is possible. The road we’re currently traveling is not only outrageous and destructive, but unsustainable. People both inside and outside of business increasingly realize this; discussion about what a business is or should be is growing in breadth and volume. I look forward to fewer subprime mortgages as much as I look forward to more Ben & Jerry’s.
Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences.