In 1978, Brooklyn-born Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield chose a dilapidated gas station in Vermont to open the first Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop. Frosty weather and shady Häagen-Dazs dealings sought to thwart their rapid rise, but the childhood friends finished their first decade together as President Reagan’s U.S. Small Business Persons of the Year. Unilever, a European consumer giant with brands like Axe, Dove and Lipton, purchased Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 with an understanding that the company could maintain its social values and activism. Ben and Jerry continue to work at the company, but they now spend considerably more time advancing social issues like cannabis legalization and a better environment. The ice cream moguls recently gave CULTURE the scoop on everything from cannabis-themed flavors to the Stamp Stampede for campaign finance reform.
You recently said you would be game for making cannabis-infused ice cream. What kind of reaction did that provoke?
Ben: Our comments were the most widely circulated thing that we have ever said.
Jerry: I think Ben said that.
Ben: A decision like that at Ben & Jerry’s would not be ours to make, but personally, once it goes fully legal, sure, I would make ice cream that has marijuana in it. As with all edibles, it is important that they be properly dosed and labeled so that consumers are aware and a child does not eat them. It has been proven that marijuana is very efficacious as far as medicinal uses, and it is crazy not to allow that use. It has also been proven that recreational marijuana use is a lot safer and better for your body than alcohol. I think it is unconscionable that there is this drug war and prisons overflowing with people prosecuted for marijuana offenses. The really unfortunate part is that, despite the fact that marijuana is used by a whole lot of rich white people, the prisons are overflowing with poor not-white people. That is unjust, unfair, un-American and something that we have to change.
In a 2013 podcast, Ben said you stayed out of the legalization issue because you thought it would be used against your work to reduce the Pentagon budget. Do you feel cannabis is a stigmatizing issue in political circles?
Ben: Less so than it used to be. The handwriting is on the wall that it is going to be legal. What is it, 19 or 20 states legalized medicinal use, and more and more states are going to make it legal recreationally. A whole lot of law enforcement, former and current officials, favor legalization. I recently asked the campaign director for Stamp Stampede–my major focus lately for getting money out of politics–if it would hurt the cause if I took a public stand in favor of legalization. He said nothing will be more widely distributed than my quote about marijuana ice cream, and that did not seem to hurt us, so take whatever stand you want to take.
An urban legend on the internet suggests you started out selling cannabis green tea ice cream at California music festivals in the ’60s and ’70s.
Ben: If only! No truth to that at all.
Jerry: I think that is the best rumor I have ever heard about myself.
Free cone day is usually within a week of 420, and flavors have included Half Baked, Satisfy My Bowl and Magic Brownies. This is not a coincidence, is it?
Jerry: Ha! I never associated Free Cone Day with April 20, and those flavors you mentioned were not flavors that came out on my watch.
Ben: Those are flavors that came out since Unilever took over the company.
You temporarily changed flavor names to Hubby Hubby and Apple-y Ever After in certain markets to celebrate gay marriage legislation. Was that under Unilever as well?
Jerry: Those happened inside the company. Ben and I had nothing to do with that.
You must appreciate that Unilever supports Ben & Jerry’s values and activism.
Jerry: It is helpful to understand that Ben and I work at the company, but we are not involved in the management or operations, so we do not really make decisions about those things. People really care about what happened with Ben & Jerry’s since Unilever acquired it. The company has stayed strong with issues like marriage equality as a human’s rights issue, and the company transitioned to all fair trade and 100 percent non-GMO ingredients. Good things happened with the company, and it is no different than when Ben and I were running it.
Ben: There are occasions in which the parent company can feel–nervous is not the right word–but concerned that Ben & Jerry’s maintains positions that the company does not agree with, and that is not unusual for Unilever. Most businesses shy away from taking any type of position on social or environmental issues unless it is something that will make them more money. It is interesting, though, what recently happened in Indiana with that ridiculous law that lets people discriminate against gay people. It is the first time I can remember that companies without a direct stake in the issue took a firm, public and rapid stand opposing a law.
Jerry: It is understood in the agreement between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s that we would be able to take positions on issues that they might not. An example is the issue of mandatory labeling of GMOs in food products here in the United States. That is something that Ben & Jerry’s actively campaigns for in different states. That is a position that Unilever does not agree with, but they recognize that it is within Ben & Jerry’s values.
You mentioned Stamp Stampede, which involves stamping messages on paper currency. Was this effort started in response to Citizen’s United?
Jerry: A very large movement in the country is focused on getting money out of politics, and several Supreme Court decisions led to the current situation, but Citizen’s United was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was what catapulted the movement and added a lot of momentum to it.
Ben: We are essentially turning money into media. We call it monetary jujitsu, using money to get money out of politics. Every bill you stamp–once you spend it and put it into circulation–is seen by 875 people. One person stamping three bills a day for a year can create a million impressions, and that is very powerful. We are essentially saying that if the Supreme Court said money is free speech, we are going to make our money scream. The corporations and ultra-wealthy are using their money to buy politicians, and the rest of us should make our voices heard to create an undeniable demand to get money out of politics. The idea is to infiltrate the money supply–this is all legal, by the way–and so far we have over 50,000 people stamping, and we are growing at about 100 people per day. By the end of this year, we should have 80,000 people stamping. You can get your very own stamp at StampStampede.org.
Jerry: There is a range of non-profits working on the issue, and they are working on one level. What Ben did, which is brilliant, is to find a way for the average person to get involved and have their voice heard without having to join an organization. More than 80 percent of the people in the country, whether they are Democrats, Republicans or independents, want to get money out of politics. They understand that all the money in elections comes from these giant corporations and extremely wealthy people, and it is undermining the entire democracy. This is a way for average people to get engaged.
If money were removed from politics, what type of financing structure would you prefer? Public financing?
Ben: Public financing is one solution, and alas, I think the ideal solution, and the one that I would most prefer, but there are various other proposals. One is a voucher system in which everybody in the country gets a voucher on their taxes, like $100, to give to whatever politicians they want, and that would be the only money for the purposes of elections that politicians could use. Another good example is the one passed by the city of New York and the states of Connecticut and Maine, which is basically a small donor match whereby politicians pledge not to take large donations in exchange for having their small donations matched on a six-to-one basis by the government. The cost of public financing is about $6 per person, so getting money out of politics does not cost that much.
The company also has the Climate Justice campaign and Save Our Swirled Tour.
Jerry: This is a campaign the company is doing to engage people into policy issues like climate change. We partnered with the nonprofit Avaaz, one of the big organizers of the climate march in New York City last fall, and they are working towards ending fossil fuel use and getting to all renewables by 2050. Ben & Jerry’s got a [Tesla] that is going into different markets around the country with the goal of signing up people to join Avaaz [with its 100 percent Clean Power Petition] for the upcoming climate summit in Paris, and they are doing that by giving away free ice cream and talking about the issue. We are trying to use the deliciousness of Ben & Jerry’s to activate people on important issues.
I heard that you might launch a Climate Change ice cream flavor. Is that true?
Ben: Where did you hear that?
Is that still a secret?
Ben: Um, uh, you know, I think you are free to speculate.
So, no denial?
Ben: I would just say feel free to speculate.
Have either of you ever considered running for office?
Jerry: [In 1993,] I ran for [a seat on the Board of Selectmen] in the town of Williston where I live, and I lost. I think the reality is that I could not get elected as a dogcatcher.
You were both teens living in New York in the 1960s, but neither of you attended Woodstock. How is that possible?
Ben: When the Woodstock festival was happening, I was actually an ice cream man. I was running a truck with a friend of mine where we were ringing bells and going up and down the street in the neighborhoods selling ice cream to little kids.
Jerry: He was a mobile ice cream vendor. He was the Pied Piper man.
Ben: I was. That was the brand, the off-brand, the competitor to Good Humor. You know, there was some talk around the yard that we should take our ice cream trucks to Woodstock, but people started to talk about the traffic and how would we resupply. I just kept going up and down the streets in the neighborhood. I didn’t make it to Woodstock.
Ben, I read that you once did a diet of French bread and butter. How was that supposed to work?
Ben: Ha! It was actually French bread and garlic butter. It was garlic bread. It worked great. It was delicious and cheap, and I was not too fat, right, during that period of time? I think I was reasonable. One time it caught fire in the toaster oven.
Jerry: I think we have to say that the diet didn’t catch on.
What is the next thing you would like to do with ice cream? Maybe a Led Zeppelin flavor?
Jerry: Ben and I are not really drawn to celebrity-type flavors or popular cultural things. When we were doing the company, Jerry Garcia [with the Cherry Garcia flavor] was an unusual thing. It happens more frequently at the company now. Ben and I both think that connecting ice cream with social issues and activated people, particularly marginalized people, is the highest use of ice cream. We want to connect with our customers over delicious ice cream and making the world a better place.