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What the Heck, Ben & Jerry's? How about Cleaning Up Your Own Act?

A number of our supporters wrote recently to complain about the cozy deal between and Ben & Jerry’s. It’s a deal that lets the ice cream maker polish its image (and boost sales) by aligning its brand with progressive causes—even though the Unilever-owned company is responsible for the use of massive amounts of toxic chemicals that have all but ruined Vermont’s water.

One supporter wrote:

In case no-one else brought this to your attention, I received a solicitation over the weekend from MoveOn sponsored by Ben and Jerry's. When I got around to reading it just now I responded by attempting to notify MoveOn's administrators that they were being used by Ben and Jerry to once again present themselves as "socially responsible" citizens when in fact they among the worst of the worst offenders of the public health and contamination of the commons through their actions. 

Another emailed this:

Maybe someone from OCA can politely tell MoveOn and their members to ditch Ben and Jerry’s BS . . . Once again, Ben and Jerry’s is pretending to be all for the grassroots, Democratic values… even though they serve Glyphosate Ice Cream to their customers and refuse to go Organic!”

These supporters (and others) were referring to emails to MoveOn members from "Ben & Jerry" with subject lines like “We're worried” and “Stop Trump. Eat Ice Cream.”  One of those emails starts out with:

Hi, fellow MoveOn member!

It's Ben and Jerry, the ice cream guys.

We aren't experts on elections the way that MoveOn's team is, but we've been activists and MoveOn members for a long time

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s who later sold the company to Unilever, may in fact oppose the Trump administration. We’re fine with that. 

But let’s be clear. This is free advertising for Ben & Jerry’s, a brand that masquerades as “socially responsible” when it isn’t. And it’s a great example of subliminal advertising, designed to convey this message: “Hey, we’re just like you. We care.”

The marketing gurus at Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s know full well that many consumers are willing to spend more for products sold by “socially responsible” companies. According to a recent report, Unilever's “Sustainable Living” brands are growing 46 percent faster than rest of business.

What better way to spread the message that you’re one of the “good guys” than by promoting your brand via a 6-million-plus email list targeting people who care about social justice and the environment?

Partnering with MoveOn is just one of several publicity efforts launched in recent months, all aimed at bolstering Ben & Jerry’s brand image.

In March, Ben & Jerry’s hit the media circuit with the announcement that the brand is partnering with nonprofits and other food companies “to address climate change and healthy soils by creating a new standard focused on regenerative agriculture.”

Sounds great. Except that there’s nothing the least bit regenerative about supporting the growing of more than 90,000 acres of GMO crops in Vermont. Unless Ben & Jerry’s starts sourcing 100-percent organic milk and cream, the company can put out all the press releases it wants. But it can’t call itself “regenerative,” much less position itself as a leader involved in creating “a new standard” for regenerative agriculture.

Healthy soil, the kind of soil that contains a wealth of biodiverse organisms, the kind of soil that is rich in organic matter capable of absorbing and retaining moisture, that can draw down and sequester carbon, that grows nutrient-dense plants and food—that kind of soil doesn’t exist in a landscape saturated in glyphosate, atrazine and metolachlor. 

And yet, Ben & Jerry’s steadfastly maintains that the company cares about the climate. In another recent big media splash, the brand announced it is partnering with the London-based Poseidon Foundation on the “world’s first retail platform that connects consumers to their own carbon footprint.”

What the heck? Connecting consumers to their carbon footprint? What about Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever’s giant carbon footprints? How about cleaning up their own house, before asking consumers to clean up theirs?

One reporter asserted that the Poseidon-Unilever joint project isn’t a “half-baked idea.” Then he went on to write:

After each purchase, the [London Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop] will pay one penny to offset the carbon of the sale, and customers will then be asked if they want to double the impact by donating an additional penny.

The meager payments will help fund carbon offset projects around the world, such as building renewable energy infrastructure or planting trees, Forbes reports.

As a reminder, last year, Organic Consumers Association testing found traces of glyphosate in samples of Ben & Jerry’s purchased in London. Maybe Londoners in search of a treat should seek an organic alternative? Rather than support a brand that supports a supply chain that supports Monsanto?

Bottom line: Anything aimed at cleaning up our food and environment and cooling off the planet belongs in the plus column of corporate behavior. But shameless tricks designed to divert consumers’ attention from “pollute-for-profit” corporate practices shouldn’t be condoned.

Ben & Jerry’s can do better. But so far, it hasn’t. It’s up to consumers to boycott the brand until Ben & Jerry’s does the one thing that could save its image: trade in its dirty dairy practices and go organic.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association. To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.