Conscious Capitalists: Ben Cohen & Anita Roddick

The new corporate offices of Ben & Jerry's are smooth, not crunchy. Lots of parking. View of the Interstate. Penitentiary architecture. Their temporary digs at the former Digital plant -- where the famous founders of our local ice cream empire still share an office -- haven't yet been Ben-and-Jerry-ized. But the same couple of guys in low-slung trou still believe frozen fun can change the world. Only one "socially responsible" business has been more successful in mixing its merchandise with a social mission."Hello, Body Shop," an English-accented voice chirps over the speaker phone from corporate headquarters outside London. "Hello, Body Shop," Ben Cohen parrots back in a fake brogue, "How are you?" It's not a bad question, actually. Despite its financial success -- a new Body Shop retail store opens somewhere in the world every two-and-a-half days -- the last couple of years have been pretty stinky for the sweet-smelling Body Shop.Its globe-trotting founder, Anita Roddick, launched the worldwide chain from a tiny shop outside London 20 years ago. It has made her one of the richest women in England, and helped to put the whole notion of do-good capitalism in -- and on -- the world's face. "We have a lot in common," says Cohen, who, with partner Jerry Greenfield, grew a Burlington, Vermont scoop shop into a $150 million ice cream empire over 15 years. But in 1994 came its first dip in profits, and in 1995 a series of damaging articles alleging its "crunchy capitalism" was a scam. Similarly, The Body Shop -- which distinguishes itself from other cosmetics companies by supporting indigenous industry, environmental issues and human rights -- has been raked over the coals for allegedly misleading customers. Then Roddick was criticized for appearing in a series of American Express ads. She donated her pay to charity, but the damage was done.In other words, Cohen and Roddick have a lot to talk about. "Negative press, growing pains, how success changes your relationship with the company," Cohen rattles off a short list of things on his telephonic agenda.Like Cohen, Roddick is a visionary entrepreneur. She expresses the philosophy of her company more colorfully -- that is, with more swear words -- than anyone else. And, like our own ice cream moguls, Roddick has learned a lot about taking the moral high ground -- the downside of which is having further to fall.A trans-Atlantic dialogue with Cohen and Roddick was set up. The results -- as edifying as they are entertaining -- follow: Ben Cohen: How ya doing, Anita?Anita Roddick: I'm doing really...well, I don't know. You and I should get drunk one night and really tell each other how we are doing.BC: Hey, now that is a great idea. And you're going to be in town, right? And we're having dinner together, right?AR: Bloody right. And I'm going to drink some of the best California wine because, God, do I need it.BC: Excellent. So if we don't get sufficiently drunk before the dinner, we will get together after dinner --AR: Definitely. So listen, are you an interviewer, or what?BC: I'm looking for more of a conversation. We meet in the middle of the Atlantic and figure out all the issues we are trying to deal with. The latest is, you guys looked pretty hard at going private and decided to stay public.AR: It was six months of trying desperately to come up with a financial package that would make us still safe to be free, which is what we wanted to do. What they wanted was L300 million.BC: That's a lot of pounds.AR: We would have had to pay back an enormous amount in the first two or three years, like L57 million a year. Now we only make L35 million profit, and we kept on thinking what would happen if we don't make it. My horror -- my real horror -- is that they would have looked around at this company, and seen the department just outside my office called "Values and Vision" -- it's a bit of a stupid title -- that deals with the human rights stuff, the public campaigns. My fear was they would say 'this has nothing to do with your economic agenda, you'll have to close this down.'BC: You were talking about the "values and vision" part of the company, what Ben & Jerry's calls the "social mission." In the early days of Ben & Jerry's, I was trying to convince the board of directors and upper-level management that the social mission activities were not a drain on the company in terms of finances, and were not going to have a negative effect on the company. And now, in the last few years, I have been trying to answer critics from outside the company that are saying these social mission activities are designed to sell more product, and that we don't sincerely believe them. And now at the company, people that want to advance the social mission are trying to do what they call "build a business case for it" -- basically saying that, yeah, these things do create more sales and profit.AR: I think that will always be the tension between companies like ours and others. Profit is like breathing, we just don't want to frigging think about it. It should just come. And so we do a lot of social action, we do a lot of campaigning, we do a lot of things that sit much more comfortably in nonprofit organizations. I think the city -- you call it the stock market -- really are confused. Because we are demanding that non-economic values are part of the function of the community of the workplace.I think of this great philosopher -- Witkin Stein -- he said "words create worlds." Until you start creating new words about business, nothing is frigging going to change. We have the same tension here. Absolutely. Of course you can do frigging more if you are profitable. Of course you are going to be listened to. But that isn't the only thing to strive for. And that brings me to another question: Who deems what profit is and how much is frigging enough? We have just made L34 million profit and yet the city thinks we're failing. It's just bizarre.BC: So do you think the "values and vision" part of your company -- and the activities that come out of that -- end up increasing profits, reducing profits or having no effect?AR: If I plopped this out -- this 20 years of differences -- I'd be just the same as any dime-a-dozen cosmetics company; you'd be the same as any ice cream company. I mean we'd be nameless, we'd be anonymous. There would be nothing, nothing. We'd be a niche, an idea that went, you know -- you would have brought in the extra flavoring and it would be gone the minute somebody copied you. I'd set up this idea of natural skin care -- gone if somebody copies.What is not measurable is the amount of motivation that comes in with people who work for us, that they stay for years. Does it bring in extra money? I think it pays for all the ads we don't pay for. But there is nothing in any of our focus groups in America that say customers are rushing to our stores because of what we stand for. They come because they love the product and they love the smell. We are a bit more sophisticated in Europe when it comes to this sort of thing. We think shopping is a moral choice.BC: So you did focus groups in the U.K.?AR: Here people support us because of the values.BC: So what I extrapolate from that is that in the U.K. the values are providing significant sales?AR: Values are providing a significant sympathy, right. How that can be translated to sales nobody has worked out. Ten years ago environmental groups, citizen action groups, would challenge government on any issue. Now governments never get challenged. The activism groups, the environmental groups, the grassroots groups, the citizen-action groups, are challenging businesses. Now what we can extrapolate from that is that the consumers are vigilantes, they are seeing business as being a major force for a lot of the tension in the world. They don't believe government is in control anymore -- it's business. Whether or not they create sales, I don't know.BC: One of the things I have been talking a lot about at Ben & Jerry's is your concept of values-led business -- that's a phrase that you coined and that I have been using quite a bit. I think finally people at Ben & Jerry's are starting to get it. We are kind of talking about it in the context of values-led business versus cause-related marketing.AR: Between cause-related marketing, right, which is another way to earn money, and marketing causes, which is what I am fucking good at. As I said years ago, I'd rather market human rights abuses, and the results of that, than ever market a bubble bath. That's what I want. And thank God I've got a company that allows me -- even though I own the bloody thing -- to market all of these things that I feel are essential.I mean, I can't get excited about how I can attach my moisture cream to any causes unless I can put some value into that. And the only way I found that, you know, is supporting these small-scale economic initiatives, these primary producers like in Mexico, where the ingredient, or the finished product -- box, package, basket -- is created and we purchase it directly.BC: We talk about values-led business. The other question that stems from that is, whose values? We both have businesses of several hundred people.AR: You said it brilliantly at a speech I heard you give years ago. You said, 'don't let's complicate this. Don't let's do another pedagogy on this.' It is the values of the church and the temple. And wherever you go, there are common human values that are non-negotiable. There are the values of enhancing social equity, or evenness. There is protecting the environment -- every indigenous group does that. There are values of fostering human creativity. This is abundant in the way you act personally, and the way your company is perceived to be acting -- and the same with me.Your businesses are made of people, and people come with their needs. How do we bring spirituality into the workplace? We redefine the notion of work, that it is not a soulless job. It is something that ennobles you with the community you have -- the chattering, the creativity, the relationships. And then there are the values of the community. All of these are common to any group, whether they are in Russia, South India or whatever.BC: Right. You mentioned your business allows you to do whatever it is you do, even though you own the bloody thing. That's certainly an issue that I run into a lot here at Ben & Jerry's. Many times I feel like I can't do what I want to do, and I can't get the business to do what I'd like it to do, even though I'm the biggest shareholder. And then there is the question of empowering your employees, you know, to empower them to do whatever they want to do versus aligning everybody in one direction. I'm wondering how you deal with it.AR: This is where you and I could have...BC: A lot of drinks?AR: A radio show. Studying people like you and I is like studying a delinquent.BC: That's comforting.AR: Because it says a lot about us. There are things that we are innately uncomfortable with. I am assuming we are innately uncomfortable with structures. We are definitely uncomfortable with hierarchy. We are inclusive everything -- I am, anyway, because you are a fellow, I don't know. We want to experiment all the time. My tragedy here is that I haven't got enough people, or enough places, to grab the ideas and expedite them. Because the whole goddamn thing is so bloody big. What we do -- what you should do, what I try and do -- is to look to the point of least resistance. And that point of least resistance for me is America.BC: That's where I'm stuck. The point of least resistance for me is the U.K.AR: Well, that's it. What I do is I go and spend months in America. I go with a group of people -- less than 130 -- I have got my experimental shop. Put everything away from the bigness of here, and I bring everything there. We have gone so far bureaucratically -- hierarchy, bloody boxes -- it looks like a Leggo set from hell here. The worst thing we did was bring in this management consultant, who was brilliant for our manufacturing, but wasn't good for creativity. I just want a group of people that takes risks. I want to be measured by how many experiments don't bloody work. And that is what I am constantly setting up in America.BC: Sounds like the concept of the sandbox, or the skunkworks, that some entrepreneurs who end up with big companies do so they can experiment on their own.AR: It's survival. It's like breathing. Sometimes I feel I can't breathe. Sometimes I feel I am so pushed up, up there, as being the creator, the founder. I am almost a token, like almost a perception of eccentricity.BC: You know our companies have both been the subject of some negative press lately. At my company it had a chilling effect on taking on new risks to create positive social good. Because they were afraid if we didn't do it exactly right it would blow up in our face and we'd get more negative press. I am wondering what effect the negative press has had on your company?AR: Well, it's been catastrophic. We're even frigging frightened of using adjectives. There is something about radical -- hang on, there's an expression. I have got it written down in my book, wait a sec -- "tempered radicalism."BC: That's an oxymoron, yeah?AR: Yeah. It has stunted us to such a degree. What it says is, you can't have vision anymore. It's like Martin Luther King: "I had a dream." We are no longer allowed to dream about what we could achieve because the voicing of the dream is thrown in our face, because it isn't the reality. Every piece of paper that we printed, every statement, every leaflet, every pamphlet, was audited. Everything had to be fact, nothing could be aspirational. It created a web of assumptions, assumptions that you would never have had. Body Shop says they are all natural -- we have never said that in our whole bloody lives. They will take an aspirational idea and make it a fact. That was terribly negative for us. It made us a very boring company, there is no doubt about that, for a year. But now we are sort of going back with a vengeance.BC: Yeah, I think the same thing is happening to us. I have been saying the best answer to the critics is to do more socially positive stuff.AR: I think that's non-negotiable. I think it's the way we talk about it that was challenged. I absolutely agree with you. And I think you have always had that -- I don't think you ever lost that, though, did you?BC: Uh, yeah. I think that the number of social mission-oriented initiatives that we have taken on in the last couple of years has really dropped. And I think -- as you said -- we are just now starting to come back, to get back to where we were.AR: I think what we did was a little different. What we did was internalize everything. We made sure that every process, every bloody pot of moisture cream, had our audit. But I don't think what we did was in-your-face enough, outwardly.BC: Right. This idea that until your company is 100 percent pristine on the inside you are not allowed -- or it is not advisable for you -- to start talking about problems on the outside.AR: If we wanted to be quiet, we would have set up a library. We are big people that have big ideas with big messages. And the messages are beyond ourselves. And we, both of us, parade our philosophies up front -- and you and I will never be able to back down because we know that in our businesses it works like mirrors. When we look into our businesses we see more than ourselves. It's not, "Oh, I'm Ben or I'm Anita and we run these companies." We see the philosophies we live by, and I think in those things, Ben, we will make no compromise. And that's who we are, and that's in your face, and we are doing it with attitude. And in a way, it's up your bum, you know, this is who we are. You are either going to be with us, or if you are not, fuck it. That sort of attitude I have certainly adopted in the last two years.BC: Is that going to be your message when you speak to groups in the U.S.AR: I am going to tell them, think small when you start your own business -- if you are ever going to start your own business -- and get that smallness is brilliant. Think about being in control of your own life -- think about an honorable livelihood. And I'll be telling them about my mum, because anywhere I go I want to celebrate women, and how she pushed me to the edge of bravery. I will tell them how real education is education without walls, which is travel, and how one of the greatest components in our working life is storytelling.

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