Sustainability That You Can Count on with Ben & Jerry’s Rob Michalak

May 24, 2013

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John Shegerian: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so happy today to have Rob Michalak on. Rob is Global Director of Social Mission at Ben & Jerry’s. Welcome to Green is Good, Rob.

Rob Michalak: Thank you. Great to be here.

John: You know, Rob, we’re so excited to have you on. As a company that’s done so much good for so many years but also feeds our hungry tummies with your delicious products and you do so much social good, it’s truly an honor to have you and your great brand on Green is Good today.

Rob: Well, thanks and you know, it’s all the journey and sometimes there’s a bump in the road but sometimes, you got some good roads ahead that are clear and hopefully we can get to a good place.

John: Rob, you have such an interesting bio. You were there at the beginning in the heyday of Ben & Jerry’s. You took a little break. You came back now and you’re doing the social mission stuff. Can you give, in your own words, the whole evolution of your career at Ben & Jerry’s and where you are today?

Rob: You know, I actually go way back. It was a cosmic connection. I arrived in Vermont in 1977 as a young man, kind of a freelancer and back then I didn’t have the greatest cars because, as a freelancer, I wasn’t making a lot of money and so my car broke down one day and I’m hitchhiking and actually, this Volvo pulled over and I kind of looked in and was like, that guy looks okay so I got a ride from this guy and he’s talking to me and he says, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a freelancer. What do you do?” and he says, “Well, my buddy and I just bought a gas station in Burlington. We’re going to make food, not sure exactly what,” and it turned out to be Jerry and he and his buddy, Ben, had started this gas station and in the early days, they did a little bit of food and a lot of bit of ice cream and then eventually, the ice cream took over and as they became successful, they wanted to make sure that the success of their business would be shared in terms of that prosperity.

I came on board. I had worked locally in the news media back then and came on board early, as the PR was growing regionally and nationally and the great thing at that time was we had just written the three part mission statement in 1988 and it included a social mission alongside the product and brand mission and nobody was writing this stuff in 1988 like this and at the top of the mission, we talked about having a sustainable corporate vision of length prosperity. We’ll see people from Harvard and thinkologists and academics and visionaries now, they’re talking about shared equity, shared prosperity but back in 1988, Ben and Jerry and the leadership at that time knew that we wanted to have a length prosperity because the concept they had was really a capitalistic concept but it’s this more thoughtful caring form of capitalism that says if everybody is sharing in the prosperity, then we’re all participating in the global economy and if you look at what happened back in 2008 and 2009 when the global economy tanked, it was because of greed.

People were just trying to make money on money and they weren’t creating any value that was the underpinning of the economy and so the global economy went over the edge and what Ben and Jerry are saying is if we have an economy that includes people, that links the prosperity so that all stakeholders are sharing in this, then we’ll all be able to participate and that’s a much more sustainable healthy way to do this. I was doing public relations early on and I left the company to do some things that I had an opportunity to do. Right around the time that Unilever bought Ben & Jerry’s was when I came back in 2006 and ever since then, I’ve been the Global Director of Social Mission and the good news is that that partnership with Unilever has worked out to the best aspirations that would look like. Unilever wanted to have a progressive business in their portfolio and wanted to support Ben & Jerry’s to be Ben & Jerry’s.

There was a period of time when we were trying to figure that out early on but now, we are doing so many things. We are doing more things in terms of the social mission now than we really ever have in the company’s history. Ben and Jerry had the vision, the leadership at that time, set the direction. We had the mission statement, which is still alive and vigorous but now we’re able to actually choose all the resources that we have with the partnership with Unilever and also be Ben & Jerry’s still, managed from Vermont for the whole world, and we’re able to do a lot of stuff.

John: And, so now, we understand how it originated. Explain now how it’s being applied practically in the 2013 environment where the world has sort of caught up with you, Rob. This is the fascinating part. When the great owners of Whole Foods wrote a book called Conscious Capitalism, you guys were practicing that back when, like you said. Before it was cool to do it, before it was right to do it, before the tipping point had come, but now that it’s here and the world’s caught up to you, how are you guys now practically applying your social mission in new ways?

Rob: It’s great that a lot of companies are doing this and actually, there’s movement above and beyond any individual companies, like Whole Foods or Ben & Jerry’s. We’ve got the Benefit Corporation Movement, or B-Corp and a lot of companies, I think now in 2013, we have over 700 companies that have actually gone through the certification, which is kind of a rigorous assessment that companies would take with a nonprofit called B Lab, which administers this criteria assessment and you can become a certified B Corp if you satisfy a certain amount of the criteria and it’s rigorous and it’s audited so it has a third party credibility and more and more companies are doing this. They realize that really, companies have a connection to the community and they have a lot of power because they’ve got money, they’ve got the resources of people and their innovations and their creative thinking and if companies operate in a way that provides economic benefit but also environmental benefit and social benefit in the community, it’s going to make the community stronger and it’s going to really present an economic model that’s going to take us out into the future so we applaud companies in their approach to how this can work for their own company.

Now for Ben & Jerry’s, the way we do this is we really kind of work our way through the pint. We try to figure out through the entire value chain, from the seeds of cocoa and coffee, which we eventually use for flavoring, to the dairy farms, we’ve got a set of values and criteria that we use that we think is important, like supporting smallholder producers of cocoa and coffee and vanilla, making sure that those people in the emerging and developing world make a sustainable living and so we source ingredients through Fair Trade Certification and fair trade’s a model that provides the criteria to make sure that these growers receive a fair price for their cocoa and coffee and vanilla and bananas and things like that, which we all use in our ice cream and then for the family farms that have the dairy cows. I want to make sure that we are supporters of family farms and not these kind of mega industrial farms. We actually have a point of view that we don’t think that’s sustainable but we think that family farms in communities really have a more sustainable approach from our point of view so we want to support that and we’ve got a very robust sustainable program with family dairy farms. We call it Caring Dairy and it has 11 categories of sustainability, social, environmental, and economic, things like soil health, water health, health of the animals, the health of the farm itself economically and how it is working within the community so we’ve been able to design a whole program there that we work with, the cooperatives that we’re working with and the family farms in those cooperatives, and we’re seeing that as they apply this Caring Dairy program and we work together on it to develop it, hopefully, they’re able to run more prosperous family farms because we’re losing family farms around the world.

We’re losing them especially in the U.S. but around the world so we’re trying to use the power of our business to support them so that’s fair trade ingredients for the flavorings and then the Caring Dairy program for the dairy farmers and then we go all the way to the packaging and we use FSC-certified packaging, which is Forest Stewardship Council Certified packaging, and FSC is the gold standard for sustainable management of forests and the harvesting of the forests and then all the way to the freezers. We’ve petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to bring in cleaner greener freezers into the U.S., which up until we petitioned them, were not allowed in the US and these freezers use 40% less energy and they use a closed loop system that’s climate neutral and so we’ve been bringing those freezers in after petitioning the EPA and doing a test period to show that they’re safe and we’re able to maintain them so what we’re trying to do is through the entire business, wherever it is, that we can make business decisions that produce some sort of additional benefit in the way we make business decisions and the way we execute them.

John: Through the whole supply chain so you’re telling me, and for our listeners, and of course Ben & Jerry doesn’t need me to promote their amazing product. That’s already so successful around the world but by eating and buying more of your ice cream as just an action, we get to support more good fair trade practices, the promotion of Caring Dairies, the promotion of all the things you’re doing. The whole supply chain gets touched and gets benefited because it gives a boost in terms of the use of their products and services.

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Rob: That’s the idea. The idea is that by providing products to the consuming public that are created in a way that produces additional benefits so that we’re all able to participate in that loop of really length prosperity, it comes back to the mission statement because as we spend our money, make the products, bring them to the marketplace, and then people can enjoy them, there’s a complete loop of prosperity in that where everybody is sharing in that all along that value chain.

John: For all our listeners who just tuned in, we’ve got Rob Michalak on. He’s the Director of Social Mission at Ben & Jerry. You can see their social mission and all the great work he’s doing and they’re doing at Rob, in some of the historical pieces and even some of the more modern pieces I’ve seen in terms of business pieces and other things on Ben and Jerry, I’ve seen some of your founders’ and your great efforts in terms of lobbying and politics and things of that such and I understand that recently, your company is cooking up in the social department some issues in regards to using non GMO ingredients. Can you explain the taking on of some of these more controversial and political issues and how that affects your product and how that affects, as you say, the greater world and all of our prosperity?

Rob: In the country right now, there’s a big movement for consumers to know what’s in their product so that they can make choices in the marketplace and we had been a little bit slow, been a little bit flat footed in terms of participating in that specific issue around GMOs in foods and we’ve actually always been a company that has been a proponent of non GMO agriculture and ingredients and so what’s been happening now is that state by state, a lot of state legislatures are looking at legislation that would require that if GM ingredients are in a product, that they would need to be part of the label to let consumers know so that consumers can make a choice. Some consumers might not care. Others do but they need to have the information to be able to make that choice so we realize that over the years, we’ve been really a proponent of that. In the early days, we found that in Bovine Growth Hormone, which is a growth hormone shot into cows so that they produce more milk, which really isn’t too fair for the cows if you think about it. We’ve been against that. We communicated with our consumers about it. We labeled about it so we were way in the forefront of this and with the GMO thing, we got a little bit behind the pack but we’re working toward state by state legislation, which actually would support a national framework as well but in the absence of a national framework. Congress is having its issues of getting things done and we don’t want to waste time necessarily.

John: Well put.

Rob: The states are doing it on their own and often times, that’s what will happen at the state level first. Right now, we’re supporting an initiative at Washington State. There’s one in Vermont, our home state. Connecticut is looking at an initiative and then there’s probably about 27 other states that have in some part some sort of initiative on GMO labeling so we’re supporting that. We’ve come out in favor of that and what we’re trying to do too is when it comes to GM agriculture, a lot of the corn and soy and sugar beets in the US have really gotten into just genetically modified feeds and it’s becoming the predominant way of agriculture and we’re saying that we really believe we need to keep a conventional sector of agriculture that uses non GM seeds so that there’s the choice for that.

Now organic, by virtue of the way organic is done, is automatically non GM so people who buy organic and support organic, they’re already in the non GMO category or Genetically Modified Organisms or genetically engineered is another way people refer to it so we think that in the middle there, in the conventional ground, there is a lot of agriculture still where farmers are using good sustainable methods of agriculture, rotating crops using cover crops and different methods that they don’t need to use GM seeds to get the yield that they want to get. We want to support that and so we’re also spearheading an effort to create more demand in US agriculture for conventional non GM corn and soy and sugar beets so that people can rely on having ingredients and foods that they can purchase at the marketplace that might have multiple ingredients in them, like Ben & Jerry’s has a lot of chunks and swirls, but that they can rely on the fact that they will be non GM and we’ll label it to that effect so that people can know and they can make their choice.

John: Rob, we’re down to the last three minutes or so and you’re doing so much with what you just laid out for us with regards to fair trade, with regards to Caring Dairies, using non GMO ingredients, which we all appreciate, from my children to my wife to myself and all of our friends. People are really getting very interested in all of these, as you say, but since sustainability is truly a process and a journey, what’s now on your radar for the future, from 2013 and beyond for Ben & Jerry’s? What’s next ahead?

Rob: What we want to figure out next is how to measure what good does any of this do so let’s say we buy fair trade ingredients but how do we know that fair trade provides those benefits? So we’re working with multiple partners to make sure that we’re able to really measure that and capture that to see where the promise of all these things are and identify any gaps, like in the fair trade model. If there are gaps there, how can we participate in bridging those gaps and really making these models strong and applying that across the board, making sure that family farms are still alive and vigorous and that people are getting good food, that they can make their choices whether it’s got GM or non-GM so we just want to keep building on that and we also want to be able to measure and share that with everybody. We actually publish every year on our website a report. It’s called The Social Environmental Assessment Report or SEAR, so that people can see, bad and good, how we’re doing against our goals and just keep building on that.

John: Rob, we’re down to the last minute and a lot of young people listen to our show around the United States, actually around the world, and we get emails and they ask us, ‘How can I be the next Rob Michalak?’ Can you give in 60 seconds or less some pearls of wisdom to the young people out there that listen to the show?

Rob: I think in terms of business, young people, they’re very good about what’s needed in the community. If there’s a service or product that they can provide that provides a benefit along with a nice sustainable profit, they should develop that and as they go through school, get a good education but also, you can start getting into courses now that talk about sustainable business and socially responsible business so that path can be a good one and we need those entrepreneurs. We need good social entrepreneurs that are successful so I encourage all the young people to follow that path.

John: That is awesome and Rob, you are always welcome to come back on to Green is Good and share everything that you’re doing at Ben & Jerry and beyond and for our listeners out there, continue to support Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Rob Michalak, the Director of Social Mission at the current Ben & Jerry’s, you’re also an inspirational ambassador of length prosperity and you are truly living proof that green is good. Thank you for coming on today.

Rob: Thanks. A real pleasure. It’s good to be with you.