Did Ben & Jerry's change Unilever?

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Media captionJerry Greenfield, Ben and Jerry's co-founder: "Social strategy is absolutely necessary"

When Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's ice cream in 2000, there was talk of Unilever becoming more like Ben & Jerry's and not the other way round.

The ice-cream maker certainly does not appear to have abandoned the principles of its founders.

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."

Jerry is currently judging a competition for entrepreneurs trying to set up sustainable businesses.

'Tipping point'

Twelve years ago, the ideas of sustainability and corporate social responsibility seemed a lot more innovative than they do today.

Many companies now have such 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.

"I think Ben & Jerry's was a tipping point for Unilever - they learned a lot from the culture and learned that it made business sense," says Paula Widdowson, former head of social responsibility at Northern Foods who is now a consultant on the subject.

"It was the tipping point, but they were already going in that direction, and now they have a fantastic sustainability statement - they've realised it's the next battleground."

Jerry Greenfield is more modest about the effect his ice cream business had on its giant owners.

"I don't know that I would say that Ben & Jerry's is a big influence on Unilever - Ben & Jerry's is like a flea on the back of this giant thing," he says.

'Lip service'

It is hard to distinguish any effect that the acquisition may have had from the way that the whole of the business world has gone over the past dozen years.

"Most big companies are either looking at it or doing it," says Paula Widdowson, adding that the first areas looked at by companies are energy, waste and packaging because those tend to be the easiest ways to save money.

"Over the last 12 years, it's gone from lip service into practical application - anybody who is just paying lip service today is immediately caught out."

Jerry Greenfield says he doesn't care why companies are launching such programmes.

"Some companies may feel like they need to do it because they're getting pressured by consumers, but for whatever reason they're doing it, it makes me happy. I don't care if they're doing it to look good or to make their wives happy or whatever - it's a good thing."

He says that the next step is to bring social responsibility into everything a business does.

"It's easy to think of making money and then you give some away and you're a good company," he says.

"But the real power of a business is is in how it conducts its everyday operations and integrating environmental concerns right in the day-to-day activities: how you source your ingredients, your banking relationships, your marketing, all these activities."

Perhaps in another 12 years that will be a mainstream idea as well.

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