brand strategy

In Vermont, Unilever Fights—and Ben & Jerry's Funds—Anti-GMO Activism

Posted by Dale Buss on June 16, 2014 01:51 PM

Ben & Jerry’s may be taking hits from fans over recent recipe changes, but the original foodie ice-cream brand is sticking with its progressive DNA and eliminating some 110 sources of ingredients that contain GMOs. The move echoes the ambitions of the brand's home state, Vermont, which recently became the first US state to mandate GMO labeling.

The move by Ben & Jerry’s also puts the Unilever-owned brand in interesting opposition to the expressed stand of its global parent company, which along with other members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association in the US is suing Vermont over the new law.

But this is the kind of cultural tension that Unilever signed up for when it acquired Ben & Jerry’s from founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield for $326 million in 2000. At the time, Unilever promised a hands-off policy concerning Ben & Jerry’s social consciousness, and by all accounts the acquiring company has basically complied with that promise over the years.

But the GMO issue is a new kind of test on the unique relationship. Ben & Jerry’s revealed last year that it planned to eliminate all GMO ingredients from its products, and has since become a major supporter of the new Vermont law that is being challenged in court by major CPG brands under the GMA umbrella. In fact, activists have called for a boycott on all GMA members' products—of which Ben & Jerry's is included.

“We felt like this was something Ben & Jerry’s ought to be a leader on,” Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s social-mission activism manager, told the Burlington Free Press. (Interestingly, John Robbins, scion of competing ice cream chain, Baskin Robbins, helped spearhead the anti-GMO movement in America.)

Today, supporters of the law plan to rally at the Ben & Jerry’s flagship scoop shop in Burlington, where the brand will no doubt detail its plan to rid its 50-plus flavors of GMO ingredients, as some products are affected as far out as the label. Coffee Heath Bar Crunch was one of the chain’s most popular flavors, but Heath bars (made by Hershey) contain GMOs. The new, reworked flavor, dubbed Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch, includes non-GMO soy and corn syrup, but the brand's loyal fans have had a hard time accepting the alteration. Still, it's unlikely to force Ben & Jerry’s to reverse course.

Unilever, meanwhile, looks to be weakening on the GMO issue. In 2012, the company spent more than $450,000 to help defeat a GMO-labeling initiative at the ballot box in California, but obviously Unilever was just fine with Ben & Jerry’s going non-GMO—and loudly so. This might in part reflect the obvious fact that the heart of Unilever increasingly is in tune with the progressive and even anti-corporate values of Ben & Jerry’s. 

The Netherlands-based CPG giant has become a trailblazer in sustainability strategy and execution, for example, with an agenda that includes halving the greenhouse gas impact of its products across their lifecycles by 2020 and sourcing 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably. Unilever also includes “social impact goals” in its new sustainability platform, Project Sunlight, such as “advancing human rights across its operations and supply chain,” according to Phillip Haid, head of a cause-marketing agency.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman has become increasingly outspoken—like B&J's founders—about the shortcomings of traditional “short-term-oriented” capitalism itself, for example, eliminating the company’s quarterly profit reporting. “We will,” he wrote recently for McKinsey consultants online, “go on resisting.”

• Connect with Dale on Twitter: @daledbuss

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