Ben & Jerry s is stepping up its commitment to ethical business, announcing Thursday that all its 58 flavors of ice-cream – sold in 39 countries around the world – will be sourced from fair trade certified products by the end of 2013.
The pledge extends an existing commitment by Vermont-based Ben & Jerry s to convert all its European products to fair trade standards by the end of 2011.
Company co-founder Ben Cohen said that changing business practices in the first world to ensure suppliers in the developing world are not exploited is really the only moral way to do business.
It s not like some optional add-on, he said. There s no way any of these businesses in the first world would sell stuff for below their costs of making it. It s about time we didn t force companies in the third world to operate like that.
Cohen was in the British capital with co-founder Jerry Greenfield to celebrate the free trade pledge with an ice cream giveaway at the company s concession in Leicester Square.
Greenfield and Cohen no longer have any board or management position at Ben & Jerry s, which has annual global sales of $500 million, after selling the company to Anglo-Dutch food major Unilever NV in 2000.
But they are still involved with the company they founded as a single ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont, in 1979 and continue to act as watchdogs for the company s progress on social values.
The pair said in an interview Wednesday they were sad that chief executive officer Walt Freese has resigned, applauding his success in championing the company s heritage of social and environmental values.
Freese s departure after eight years at the helm to pursue other values-led business and investment opportunities was announced last week.
I m very sorry to see Walt go, Greenfield said. It s difficult to find somebody who not only has the business expertise, but also passionately shares the social values of the company, and Walt I think is somebody who is very unusual in that respect, he added.
Asked if either of them would be willing to throw their hat back in the ring, Greenfield said the response was a pretty quick no from him. Cohen, who resigned as CEO in 1995 before the Unilever buyout, didn t directly answer the question.
Ben & Jerry s launched its first Fairtrade certified product, its basic vanilla flavor, in 2005 and has added one new variant each year since then.
A Fairtrade certified product means the Fair Trade Foundation has determined that farmers got fair prices, workers got decent wages and the product was produced in an environmentally responsible manner.
Ben & Jerry s is already working with 10 different Fairtrade Co-ops with up to 27,000 members across six different commodities. That includes cocoa producers from the Dominican Republic and Ivory Coast, vanilla producers from India and Uganda, sugarcane producers from Belize, banana producers from Ecuador and almond producers from Pakistan.
The company s commitment to 100 percent Fairtrade by the end of 2013 means that it will seek similar deals with pineapple, passion fruit, mango, macadamia nut and peppermint suppliers.
Making the pledge more difficult is the fact that Fairtrade remains a new area for many businesses.
The company s demand for newly certified ingredients such as almonds and walnuts outstrips the current world supply, meaning it so far has only been able to purchase a third of almonds it needs from a producer in Pakistan. It said it continued to work with the producer, Mountain Fruits, to increase their harvest and membership, while also working with Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International to certify new cooperatives.
Cohen said that the US has been slower than other regions to adopt fair trade principles, as the domestic sugar lobby has placed very high tariffs on imports.
Europe is leading the way, said Cohen. The US lags behind, but the trend is beautiful. Even in the United States it s growing at least 20 percent a year.
Harriet Lamb, the head of the Fairtrade Foundation, said the company had shown real leadership in its long-term ambition to engage with small produce suppliers around the world. The public will lap up these Fairtrade ice creams and producers will start to see real benefits rolling back to them, she said.