Building a socially valuable chain of activities at Ben and Jerry’s

Wednesday’s presentation from the Ben & Jerry’s founders was certainly a popular event (I guess free icecream trumps the pain for many of us standing for an hour+). They told some fantastic tales of their almost accidental rise to fame and fortune.

The main message of their talk was how a business can be run in a socially responsible fashion. They offered some intriguing examples of (as they put it) “improving the quality of life in our community” without necessarily contradicting the usual modus operandi of business (i.e. pursuing customers with an attractive product).

It was great to see how they had leveraged their existing value chain and capabilities to deliver genuine social benefits.

At the supplier end they discussed their involvement with Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York. This bakery offers training and employment opportunities for socially-disadvantaged folks. Rather than just throwing these guys some money to keep up their good work, Ben & Jerry’s designed an ice-cream (Chocolate Fudge Brownie) using the Bakery’s output. They said this now sends around $4m worth of business the bakery’s way each year. See more on this here (including a cool video).

At the distribution end the firm has awarded a number of their retail franchises free to not-for-profits in various locations. Again, these NGOs usually offer training and employment opportunities for at-risk youth. These Partnershops look and feel like the for-profit stores, and the charities presumably seek to make surpluses in just the same fashion, equipped with the processes and expertise transferred to all franchisees.

Both of these approaches embrace the power of the firm’s core competitive advantages (designing, marketing and delivering fancy ice-cream) so as to achieve a financially and socially profitable result. It’s a great model for others to follow and adapt.

Oh, and the free Chunky Monkey Ice-cream tasted great. See a brief snippet from Jerry here.

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