The free market, where it is still free, has a way of keeping companies in line that stray too far from their consumers’ core values.
That was the counter-argument (not original) I always made when, during business school at Cornell, some of our professors would tote corporate social responsibility and the “triple bottom line” as a way to insert “green business practices” into companies’ decision-making practices. Cornell’s Johnson School has gone so far down the green road that they’ve even created a Sustainable Global Enterprise center. Don’t get me started. Milton Friedman was invoked.
Back in October 2011, Unilever, the multinational consumer-goods company with brands including Dove, Slim-Fast, Lipton, Vaseline, Pond’s, and Axe, allowed its ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry’s to publicly endorse Occupy Wall Street:
The endorsement remains on the B&J website to this day. Anthony Reuben, writing for the BBC, posits that Ben & Jerry’s changed Unilever, and not the other way round, after its acquisition of the brand in 2000:
Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported the Occupy Wall Street movement and, according to co-founder Jerry Greenfield, nobody got fired.
“I am pleased that Ben & Jerry’s is able to continue its innovative mission,” he says.
“We get a lot of support – sometimes I’m a little surprised at how supportive Unilever is.”
Ben & Jerry’s and its emphasis on activism is a bold stance given broader consumer sentiment about the Occupy issue in particular. In January, Rasmussen Reports released numbers showing that only 39 percent of Americans view Occupy as a valid protest movement and that 51 percent view it as a “public nuisance.”
But it is possible that despite broad American anti-Occupy sentiment, the consumers who care about these and other issues vote with their dollars, but others will continue buying the quality product despite its political gestures. Also highly plausible is that those who purchase Ben & Jerry’s aren’t politically representative of the broader American public.
Reuben reports that “Many companies now have such [corporate social responsibility] programmes, and Unilever itself launched its Sustainable Living Plan in November 2010 which is supposed to halve the environmental impact of its products while doubling sales over the next 10 years.”
Even so, the audience Ben & Jerry’s is courting may not be as reliable as they hope. One Occupy blogger writes:
I wanted to take a moment to respond to my various friends on various social networks who are linking to the above Ben & Jerry’s announcement that the brand supports the Occupy Wall Street protests.
It doesn’t really matter what Ben & Jerry’s board of directors supports as they are merely a division of consumer products conglomerate Unilever, the third largest food company behind Nestle and Kraft. Don’t be fooled by a shallow marketing ploy.
This is one of the problems with global corporations—they can have no obligation besides profit….
It seems of late many Americans increasingly are exercising this consumer activism as a way of furthering their political say — from boycotting the advertisers who pulled out of Rush or are abandoning ALEC to those consumers who seek out local or “green” merchants. And the pro-Occupy stance of Ben & Jerry’s could color consumers’ perception of other Unilever brands in the long-term.
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
If consumers really prefer companies who practice “sustainability,” or “pro-Occupy” brands, etc., then they’ll vote with their dollars. If you were a shareholder of Unilever, would you have supported this gamble? Will companies like Unilever continue to allow their brands to pick sides in the political debates of our day?