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As we grapple with all of the changes happening in our world right now, many companies are trying to step up to the plate. Corporate activism is now front and center as a  topic of discussion. We are seeing companies working to implement new social impact initiatives, and taking stands to fight injustice in ways that they may not have done before. People are taking notice of which companies are rising to the occasion.

But there are some companies that have been shining examples of corporate activism in action since their inception. One such company is Ben & Jerry’s. Since it was founded in 1978, the company has been dedicated to a three-part mission: economic, social, and product, with the intent to create linked prosperity for all who come in contact with the business.

Recently, Ben & Jerry’s has gained attention and applause for putting out its “Silence is not an option” message, calling for the dismantling of white supremacy.

We spoke to Dave Rapaport, Global Social Mission Officer at Ben & Jerry’s, about how the company values are baked into the core of the business, and how those values have guided the actions that Ben & Jerry’s has taken to have a positive societal impact, especially now.

About Dave

A mission-driven activist for more than 30 years across the business, non-profit and government sectors, Dave Rapaport is the Global Social Mission Officer for Ben & Jerry’s. He leads the iconic Vermont-based ice cream company’s commitment to be a force for good, with focus is on the day-to- day impacts of its operations and value chain, and on using its business influence to promote progressive social change. Prior to joining Ben & Jerry’s, he was vice president of Earth and Community Care for Aveda, where he helped drive the pioneering beauty company’s mission to care for the world and model environmental leadership and responsibility.

Previously, Rapaport held leadership positions with green household care products pioneer, Seventh Generation, and in business and project development in the renewable energy industry. Before joining the business world, Dave spent two decades in the public policy arena, serving as executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group and as senior staff with the environmental organization, Greenpeace, where he directed national work on toxic chemicals and pollution prevention.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Dave: At this point, I’ve had almost a 40 year career. I spent the first 20 years as an environmental activist, a lot of that time with Greenpeace. I also did some work in the developing world on appropriate technology stuff. And I led Vermont’s largest grassroots organization for about five years. After about 20 years in the policy arena, I got curious about how to make change on the other side of the fence, so I went to work for a renewable energy company based in Vermont. I also worked for Seventh Generation before it was acquired by Unilever, and spent five years working for Aveda. 

I came back to Vermont about two and a half years ago for this role at Ben & Jerry’s. This is my third company where I’ve been leading a team that is focused on social mission related stuff, like sustainability and the broad range of ways in which a company is trying to be a force for good.

In my role at Ben & Jerry’s, I lead a team of about 20 people. My team works to advance the company’s values in different ways. We focus on the way that the company has a direct impact through our business operations and value chain as well as the influence we try to have on society as a business. 

We have a sustainability function with a focus on climate change and eliminating plastic. We have some very robust values-led sourcing programs, especially around dairy.  But we have a whole set of other things that we do around non dairy ingredients and social enterprises like Greyston Bakery that makes the brownies we use.

On the external side, we really focus on fan facing activism in partnership with NGOs, and we’ve focused on race, particularly criminal justice reform, for the past few years. In Europe, we focus on refugee and asylum rights. In other parts of the world, it’s climate change. We’ve focused on a variety of other issues related to the core values of human rights and dignity, social and economic justice, and environmental protection, restoration, and regeneration.

How are the stances and actions that Ben & Jerry’s takes shaped by the company values?

Dave: A distinguishing feature of Ben & Jerry’s is that we do the social mission because it’s really an aspiration at the company to utilize the business for good and to work toward those causes. What’s also unique is our focus on making real, systemic change, as opposed to philanthropic work that only addresses the symptoms of problems. 

Hand in hand with that is the recognition that we’re not about cause related marketing. With cause related marketing, you survey what your target audience cares about, and then you try to do some things that align with that and raise money for a specific cause. At Ben & Jerry’s, we actually start with our own values first and find partners that are leading and making real change. We bring to the table the resources and tools that we have as a business to help them with their campaigns. Through that work, we’ve ended up creating a real close relationship with our fans over these shared values, but we’re not figuring out what they value and trying to latch onto that. We’re going for the folks that value what we value.

We’re not trying to win over everybody. We’re trying to have a real close relationship with those that share our values. The closest relationship you can have with your consumers is over shared values. We don’t do it to build the brand, but we know that it has that effect.

It’s about understanding that we’re an ice cream company, and that there are people who are engaged full-time in making changes across these different issues, so the way that we can really be most productive in making change is by helping them. These are not short term things- we don’t go from one issue to the next year over year. These are long-term efforts, and in order to have credibility with the NGOs that we want to partner with, we have to be consistent. So we have partners that we work with over time, and we use our tools to help them. 

We try to fit in as a part of their strategy in situations where they’re relatively close to getting a significant victory, and we do what we can do to help put them over the edge.

How are the values that Ben & Jerry’s espouses externally reflected internally, in the company culture and leadership?

Dave: Ben and Jerry’s has always focused on this concept of linked prosperity. That essentially means that we want everybody who touches the brand to benefit from it and to share in the success. So we do a living wage analysis wherever we have employees and ensure that the starting salary is at least at that living wage level. We have always provided a range of innovative benefits. We tend to attract people who are interested in being part of a company that’s an extension of their own values. We provide a full week of paid volunteerism for employees, and over the years there have been a lot of different configurations of community activism.

One area we have been actively engaged in, but very behind on, is implementing the internal changes that are needed to advance racial equity. We’ve been on the journey of understanding implicit bias and systemic racism, and trying a number of different things to bring greater diversity to the company, but to this point we haven’t fully succeeded.

Coincidentally, prior to George Floyd’s murder and the tremendous movement that has developed or been joined by so many across the United States and in the world, we had already began to try to actively change that through a program that has been unfolding over the last several years. We work with a company called Race Forward, an NGO that provides guidance to a lot of employers. 

They did an opportunities analysis for us, which was a long process that involved lots of surveys and focus groups and interviews. They made a bunch of recommendations based on those opportunities and, starting this spring, we began to hone in on what the leadership thought were the critical areas to start with. We created initiative teams which now have probably 60 employees on one of four initiative teams, along with some people from Unilever and some others from our franchise network and NGO partners. We’re now working on developing specific targets and KPIs based on going after what we need to do to achieve true equity within the company. By the end of the summer, we’ll be announcing those targets publicly and holding ourselves accountable to them. 

With COVID-19, how did the leadership come together and formulate a plan? What was that process like?  Can you speak to how Ben and Jerry’s values illuminated the path forward?

Dave: Early in March it became really clear pretty quickly that everybody had a responsibility to thwart the growth of the virus through social distancing and locking down. We’re part of Unilever and Unilever is a big global corporation, so they were very focused on this. As we were all kind of coming to grips with it ourselves at Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever decided to close all the offices.

Coincidentally, we had just begun to transition to working with Microsoft Teams, so we have the tools in place to be doing things virtually. It was actually surprisingly seamless to be able to shift over to be doing these virtual meetings.  It surprised all of us how much we were able to keep in touch with each other.

Our franchise network is made up of independent businesses, and we can’t control them. So there was a wide range of responses among our franchisees based on their geography and their perceptions. But we were encouraging our franchise network to close to be safe, to protect themselves and their employees, and to avoid spreading the virus within their communities.

As all that was happening, we committed to continuing to pay all of our flexible resources and our contract contingent workers in factories and the offices. We committed to continuing to pay the employees of our company owned scoop shops. We provided a bunch of funding to help the franchisees make it through, and we did a lot of work to help them to access other resources that were available.

All of this was the initial focus that our values led us to have- there was no question about it. 

We have done a little bit of philanthropy here in Vermont, most of that focused on farm workers. Migrant farmworkers make up a significant portion of the workers on the dairy farms that supply most of our cream, and they’re left out of all of the federal and state assistance that has been provided, so we provided some funds to some organizations that are working to provide healthcare and other forms of assistance for farm workers.

In addition, we have a program called Caring Dairy, where we work with a bunch of farmers in Vermont, and a few in New York, that we partner with toward a vision of ensuring that the dairy we buy is produced on farms that are thriving economically, where labor is thriving, where animals have excellent care, and where regenerative agriculture is enabling reduced chemical inputs and more environmental sustainability. 

As we move into the “new normal”, what changes to do you foresee in the way that the business operates?

Dave: The work streams of the four working groups that are doing the work on racial equity will come up with strategies and targets, but I strongly suspect that one of the ways that will be able to increase our diversity of hiring going forward is by allowing remote working. Now we know that it works. We know that teams can be highly functional and collaborative using these tools.

There are obviously things that we need to figure out  around maintaining the culture of the company, but there are also changes to the culture of the company that we need to make, so all of that is beginning to come together right now.

In addition, we’ve all had to be flexible in this time. Parents with young kids are having an exceptionally tough time figuring out work schedules as they’re also homeschooling on top of everything else. So increased flexibility is going to be another important thing going forward that I know we will be working to preserve. I’m sure there will be a lot more, but those are the two big examples that come to mind.

What do you think is like the biggest thing that companies can learn in a time like this?

Dave: This time started with COVID, and has been enhanced by the awakening that many of us have had as a result of the movement that has arisen after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. It has been a time when we’ve been able to focus on things that really matter. There are fewer distractions. We don’t have sports to watch, we’re not going out and drinking, or doing whatever we were doing before. I believe that this time and ability to focus on what matters is a big part of what led to the response to those murders. It is showing companies that people’s values matter. Why should we expect people to put their values aside at work, where they spend most of their time? We all really want those enterprises that we’re helping to build, grow, and sustain to be expressions of those values. To be successful, businesses need to find a way to incorporate those values into the way that they operate. What we’re seeing right now is what it really means to truly be a responsible citizen as a corporation. That leaders across society as a whole- and businesses are no exception- have a responsibility to speak out and to make their views known. And when there is injustice, it’s very important for leaders within companies to make voices heard, to facilitate the ability of their employees to make their voices heard as well, and to make that a part of the role that the company has in society.