by Glenn Reed
(Swans - March 24, 2014) Seeing a fledgling business start off bare bones and make it big is gratifying. Everyone loves a rags-to-riches story. Or do they?
I'm thinking of two corporations that started out really small in a state that is known for valuing "small," local, organic, and such. Many people point to them as examples of how corporations can do "the right thing," promote sustainability, save the planet. Unfortunately, it's more a case of collective delusions maintained by the forces of capitalism.
It was my sophomore year at the University of Vermont back in the spring of 1979. A good friend of mine and I were walking around downtown Burlington when she mentioned a place she'd discovered that had "the best ice cream in town."
I was a bit skeptical when we approached what was, clearly, an old gas station building that had been converted into an ice cream business. There was a line of mostly college students going out the door. I noticed what was, apparently, an ice cream machine visible through the wide windows. We took our places at the end of the line.
The ice cream was amazing: thick, rich, creamy, and better than any I'd had before. I soon made a habit of heading to this spot when I needed to satisfy my sweet tooth, especially on a warm day.
A few years later I ran across a pint of ice cream labeled with the name of that store in Burlington. It was in a general store on the other side of the state. "Wow," I thought. "They've become so popular that they're distributing all over Vermont."
The name of that local ice cream shop hangout was, of course, Ben & Jerry's. In a scant few years they were to become household words around the country and then overseas.
Ben & Jerry's also became a model for so-called "corporate responsibility." Founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield proved that corporations could do "the right thing." They were not driven solely by the bottom line, but were still successful. Ben & Jerry's treated their employees well, made a point of using local, organically-produced ingredients, donated 7.5% of pre-tax revenues to charity while setting up its own charitable foundation, and chose the location for a second manufacturing plant based on what Vermont community had the greatest economic need and did more great stuff. They even named an ice cream flavor after famed Grateful Dead guitarist, Jerry Garcia.
Ex-hippies and progressive activists throughout Vermont pointed to this corporation and said to the rest of Corporate America: "see, you CAN do the right thing AND stay in business AND make money!"
Much of Ben & Jerry's luster wore off in 2001 when the corporation was bought by, and became a subsidiary of, the multinational giant, Unilever Corporation. The latter is the world's third-largest consumer goods company and an active proponent of the neoliberal economics model that is destroying the planet. While Ben and Jerry retained a measure of autonomy and built in provisions to the deal that would enable the company to maintain its reputation as a "kinder, gentler" corporation, their company's image would never be quite the same again.
Ah, because in the end, Ben & Jerry's was just another publicly-traded corporation. No matter how much you try to candy-coat capitalism, a pig is still a pig underneath all of the peanut butter fudge, cheesecake brownies, or chocolate chip cookie dough. It must have profit. It operates by the rules that demand endless growth. It can only exist through participation in a system that is depleting the world of its resources, extinguishing thousands of species, destroying biodiversity, contaminating all of our water and air, exploiting labor somewhere, and accelerating the process of global climate change. Abuse can be "kinder and gentler," but it's still abuse.
Yes, Vermont is quaint. Yes, smaller is better. But Vermont is not an island and its economics and "local" companies are firmly entrenched in the capitalistic model that is a dead end. Its corporations can be more "progressive," and "feel-good" for the short-term, but in the long run, they are leading us to the same direction as those heartless companies maximizing profits in the anti-union, anti-regulation states such as Alabama and Louisiana.
I hadn't thought much about my disillusionment with Ben & Jerry's until returning to Vermont in 2011. I'd pretty much stopped eating their products years before after the Unilever takeover, mainly because I'd discovered some alternative, locally-produced ice creams that were just as good. They were still small. And local. And I was living in Washington State at that time.
Another small business that was deemed "socially responsible" and took off a few years after Ben & Jerry's was Green Mountain Coffee. Its pattern of "success" was very similar: small-town business, treated employees well, emphasized "fair trade" ingredients, expanded statewide, then spread across the country.
Yes, like Ben & Jerry's, Green Mountain Coffee did a lot of things "right" for a corporation. It certainly looks saintly on paper compared to such sociopathic "corporate citizens" (a repulsive term!) as Monsanto, Exxon-Mobil, Nestle, Bank of America, Shell, and Walmart. Still, they too are a publicly-traded corporation operating by the rules of capitalism that demand an endless, unsustainable growth that is destroying the planet.
And as this corporation has grown larger, the cracks in the "good corporation" façade have increased as well.
One day on the job, I decided to dash to the neighborhood store for a cup of coffee. A co-worker asked if I could pick up a "K-cup" of coffee for her. "What's that?" I had to ask. I'd always just pumped my coffee from a dispenser into a paper cup or my traveling mug. I learned that "K-cups" are plastic containers, with foil tops, that contain coffee grounds. You simply place the cups in the K-machine (first produced by the Keurig Corporation) that brews you a fresh cup within seconds....and automatically disposes of the K-cup. Yes, the K-cup is trashed. Directly into the waste stream. No recycling. No composting of the used coffee grounds. More plastic that becomes "out of sight, out of mind."
Of course, the reality is that nothing is disposable. It's all still....somewhere. Thus, out-of-sight, out-of-mind is not true when you're walking on a beach in Oregon after a storm. Then you will be horrified by the constant trail of pieces of plastic of various colors, shapes, and stages of deterioration that mark the tideline. Or if you happen to be sailing in the middle of the Pacific, maybe you'll encounter the great masses of floating plastic debris that are measured in square miles. Or perhaps you'll catch a dead fish that has choked on plastic or find a starved squirrel with its head caught in a plastic jug.
About 3 billion K-cups are sold each year. So I'm sorry, Green Mountain Coffee, but you can donate your 5% of profits to all my favorite non-profits and never buy your coffee from any corporate plantations that are deforesting South America, but you can't call yourself "socially responsible." You are a full participant in the system that is destroying the planet. Planet Earth does not recognize your "good corporate citizenship."
Did I forget to mention that Green Mountain Coffee, in recognition of the importance of their "K-cup" line, recently voted to change their name to Keurig Green Mountain? They just had to recognize the Keurig acquisition that led to their K-cup line. Somehow the new name just doesn't evoke that "local" feel anymore. The corporation has also made a few sweet deals with Coca-Cola and Starbucks in recent history.
I suppose many would find fault with my picking on two publicly-traded companies that are among the better behaved in the corporate world. "You're just another unrealistic, idealistic liberal! Nothing's perfect. Get off your high horse and give them credit for the good they are doing!"
Short-term, yes. But the short-term is now ending.
It doesn't really matter if you're speeding in a gas-guzzling, maximum-polluting Excalibur SUV and chomping on McDonald's burgers or going the speed limit in your fuel-efficient Prius, while eating locally produced nuts and berries. You're both going in the same direction, following the same capitalist map leading to a dead end.
These inspiring stories of "success" are both really rags-to-riches to global disaster in the final cut. Sorry, Ben & Jerry's and Green Mountain....er....Keurig Green Mountain, but you are now just as guilty, at the fundamental capitalistic level, as the rest of your corporate brethren.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)