Many health and environmentally conscious individuals who enjoy ice cream as an occasional treat feel good about choosing Ben & Jerry’s brand. They’ve painted the idyllic image of a socially responsible company “with a continued commitment to incorporating wholesome, natural ingredients and promoting business practices that respect the Earth and the environment,” as they put it.1 Yet, it’s just that — an image, not a picture of reality.
As I wrote about earlier this year, Ben & Jerry’s has succeeded wildly in one of the greatest greenwashing scams of all time. They promote their Caring Dairy program as involving 300 “family operated” farms, giving the illusion that happily grazing cows produce the rich, creamy milk with which they make their premium ice cream.
Yet, rather than supporting grass fed organic agriculture, they’re simply riding on its coattails, pretending their ice cream is a premium product when in fact it’s made from the same CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) milk you can find in many other brands. It’s true that Ben & Jerry’s gets most of its milk from Vermont farms, but that’s the rub.
Many people assume that Vermont is home to vast acres of rolling pastures. In reality, as noted by nonprofit advocacy group Regeneration Vermont, the CAFO dairies supplying Ben & Jerry’s are unethical for the animals and destroying the state’s waterways. According to Regeneration Vermont, in a report titled, “A Failure to Regulate: Big Dairy & Water Pollution in Vermont:”2
“[C]ontamination from the mega-dairies that supply Vermont’s big brands, like Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot Cheese, is nothing new to Vermonters,3 especially when it comes to the contamination of our waterways. For decades, these iconic brands have garnered enormous profits – each hovering around the $1 billion-a-year level – while pushing a kind of confinement, non-grazing dairy production, resulting in a toxic farm runoff that is literally choking our lakes and streams.
Even the beloved Lake Champlain is one of more than 100 other bodies of water in Vermont that are classified as ‘impaired.’ And, in many cases, ‘impaired’ means filled with the green slime that is cyanobacteria, smelling so badly that summer camps have become uninhabitable, and beaches are posted with signs that warn, ‘no swimming.’”
Ben & Jerry’s Has Been Polluting Vermont for 20 Years
This isn’t news to Ben & Jerry’s, of course. Despite being told of the damage their dairy suppliers are creating in the environment, the company has refused to transition their farmers to an organic, regenerative solution for two decades. Michael Colby, former editor of Food & Water Journal and co-founder of Regeneration Vermont, stated:4
"It was 20 years ago last month that Food & Water published our report on Vermont's atrazine addiction, a toxic herbicide that is banned in Europe but continues to be used in abundance on Vermont's 92,000 acres of GMO-derived feed corn — all for dairy cows. We used the report to get the attention of Ben & Jerry's, and it worked. We thought when the doors swung open to the offices of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield themselves that we'd be able to make the case to them.
Our plea at the time was the same as it is today: Ben & Jerry's should practice what it preaches and help transition its farmers to organic production. If they took the lead, we argued, the entire state could begin a transition away from the kind of industrial, commodity-based dairy system that is wreaking so much havoc with Vermont's agriculture …
We thought the obvious imbalance — and even direct, outright hypocrisy — between what Ben & Jerry's was doing and what they were saying would be enough to get these do-good hippies to do the right thing. We were using logic. Because, certainly, the corporation that wanted to 'save the planet' and 'put the planet before profits' would want to stop being one of the state's top polluters, right?
Wrong. We were told at the time, by Ben himself, after a year's worth of meetings and even an offer of a job to me 'to work with us instead of going after us,' that Ben & Jerry's was not going to transition to organic because it wouldn't allow them to 'maximize profits.'"
Ben & Jerry’s Executives Forced to Visit Contaminated Lake Carmi
Lake Carmi in Franklin, Vermont, is a favorite spot for recreation and supports northern pike, walleyes and other warm-water species — or at least, it once did. The once pristine lake is now in environmental crisis, plagued by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. It can produce toxins that are harmful to humans and marine life. Skin rashes and respiratory issues can result from exposure to the algae, and should it get into an open wound, it can lead to a staph infection.5
As fertilizer and manure from industrial farms run off and enter waterways, they lead to an overabundance of nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, in the water — nutrients that fertilize the growth of the algae blooms now taking over. What does this have to do with Ben & Jerry’s? Regeneration Vermont explained:6
“Lake Carmi sits at ground zero for the state’s industrial dairy industry, Franklin County, home to more than 36,000 confined cows (and only 47,000 people), creating a staggering amount of phosphorus-rich manure. This county’s mega-farms are the primary dairy suppliers for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.”
Ben & Jerry’s continues to turn a blind eye toward the devastation, so Regeneration Vermont and members of the Franklin Watershed Committee made them an offer they couldn’t refuse: tour Lake Carmi and the surrounding watershed to see the damage firsthand.
In a commentary by Jostein Solheim, Ben & Jerry’s CEO, it’s noted, “Ben & Jerry’s recognizes that we are connected to the farms in the Lake Carmi watershed. Our Caring Dairy farm program, which we implement through the St. Albans Cooperative, has members in the Lake Carmi watershed.”7
Solheim then goes on to state, “[The Ben & Jerry’s team] found it tragic to see the polluted condition of this usually beautiful lake, which is currently experiencing the worst cyanobacteria bloom in recent memory. The condition of the lake, the hardship it’s forced upon local residents and businesses is, well, heartbreaking.” At least progress is happening in that Regeneration Vermont was able to get Ben & Jerry’s CEO out to see the contaminated lake.
The rest of the commentary, though, reads like a piece of fluff, with Solheim praising the company’s Caring Dairy farm program and stressing that the problems created “are not ours alone to solve.”
It mentions a “renewed vision for dairy farming in Vermont” and notes that “many more details of our vision for the future of our farms” will be available soon. In other words, it’s reminiscent of the many conversations Regeneration Vermont has had with Ben & Jerry’s in the past. As noted by Will Allen, owner of Cedar Circle Farm, a regenerative farm in Vermont, and Regeneration Vermont co-founder:8
“Stalling has been refined to an art form with Ben & Jerry’s social mission and dairy teams. In April 2016, they felt that they would have a decision on changing their dairy sourcing by September/October 2016. When October came, they felt that they would have a decision by December. In December, we were told that February or March would be when they made their sourcing decision.
In February, a Unilever director offered to set up meetings with Ben & Jerry’s CEO and us (Regeneration Vermont) and Roger Allbee, the former Vermont secretary of agriculture. Six months later, we are still hoping to have that meeting. Finally, April or May was to be the target date for making sourcing decisions. [As of] … July — still no decision, still no meeting with the CEO. Still stalling.”