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What does it mean to be a socially responsible company?

The exterior of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop pictured on a rainy day
Wilson Ring
Associated Press
Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop in Burlington.

One of Vermont’s most beloved homegrown brands, Ben & Jerry’s, suddenly has a lot of question marks in its future. After 24 years, Unilever announced its plan to spin off its ice cream department.

Since then, there’s been a lot of industry talk about Ben & Jerry’s social and political values, and how they could’ve caused some tension with Unilever. Vermont Edition reached out to Ben & Jerry’s ahead of today’s show, and the company responded: "Ben & Jerry’s has been owned by Unilever for the last 24 years and this represents a significant change for us. However, regardless of any new ownership structure, Ben & Jerry’s remains committed to advancing our three-part mission and is well-positioned to continue to grow our global company."

Fritz Burkhardt, a finance professor at Champlain College, said Unilever will establish the ice cream subsidiary as a separate standalone independent business.

"I think this would be interesting because this would be one of the largest pure-play ice cream companies in the world," Burkhardt said. "And being separate from Unilever actually could be a wonderful thing for it."

Burkhardt added that Unilever has been under pressure for a while, and there have been signs that their investors are getting impatient for better results.

"Unilever has been pushing to increase its margins over the last few years," Burkhardt said.

Ice cream is a more competitive market than some of Unilever's other businesses, he said. He said with inflation, people's budgets are tight, so they're switching to less premium products.

Can corporations have a heart?

The spinoff news follows years of tensions between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s leadership over its social and political stances.

Roxanne Vought, with the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said Ben & Jerry's is a founding member of VBSR. The group has been around for over 30 years and works with 700 members across the state.

"There are a whole bunch of different ways that the business's decisions at an everyday level have a really broad impact around them," Vought said.

Burlington-based Rhino Foods, which makes ready-to-eat cookie dough and other food products, is a member of VBSR.

Rooney Castle, Rhino Foods president and CEO, said his parents founded the company with values in mind. "My father came from a coaching background, so it was a lot about how you get the most out of your team, or your people," he said.

Castle says that from day one, the company has been focused on thinking about how they can elevate employee voices.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.