Why Ben & Jerry's Relationship with Walmart Is Actually Good For the Future of Food

For 20 years, Ben & Jerry's has fought against the use of rBGH...but it was only when Walmart decided to stop using it in their brand of milk that the system finally started to change.

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[Photograph: Brad Thomas Parsons]

When Ben & Jerry's released the limited-batch Chocolate Flourless Cake ice cream flavor this year, sold exclusively at Walmart, our ice cream columnist Brad Thomas Parsons was all over it. He hopped in his car, drove 15 miles to the nearest Walmart Supercenter, and victoriously captured what has been billed "the chocolatiest chocolate flavor yet."

But rather than focus on this chocolatesplosion in a pint, readers seemed way more concerned with the Walmart connection.

"Somehow, this takes the luster off a pint of Ben and Jerrys for me." —MoEats.

"Talk about selling the soul of a product! I'm disappointed." —Brownie.

Ever since Ben & Jerry's was purchased by Unilever—one of the world's largest consumer products companies—in 2000, the little-guy Vermont ice creamery has been knocked for being a sell-out.

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Old-school photo of Ben and Jerry. [Photograph: Erin Zimmer]

Have they sold out? Maybe. But does that necessarily have to be a bad thing? I recently visited the Ben & Jerry's headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, and talked with the executives about their relationship with Walmart. (And when I say "executives," I don't mean shiny cuff links. More like Birkenstocks with socks.) Walking around the offices, you'd hardly guess this company was acquired by Unilever ten years ago. There's a slide instead of an elevator, a conference room called the "Cookie Dough Room," and bean bags for meeting powwows.

Ben & Jerry's still fancies themselves the little guy. "We can't transform the world the way Walmart can," said Andy Barker, the company's social mission coordinator. "But we're more nimble and can be the catalyst for Walmart to change food systems."

For 20 years, Ben & Jerry's has fought against the use of rBGH, the artificial growth hormone in cattle. None of the milk in their ice cream contains it. But it was only when Walmart decided to stop using rBGH in their brand of milk, Great Value, in 2008 that the system finally started to change.

"Walmart decides to stop carrying rBGH, and now they're closing the business down. If someone else can shut down the recombinant bovine growth hormone business, we'll partner with them," said Barker.

As hippie-dippy as the brand comes across, they understand Walmart's power in the market. "Every time we sell to Walmart we can do bigger and better," said the recently appointed CEO Jostein Solheim. "They're a big force whether you like it or not."

Just in February of this year, Walmart announced they were switching over to cage-free eggs. Ben & Jerry's has been cheerleading this issue to them (and Hellmann's, which also made the switch) for a while, but Walmart finally decided to listen.

"We have to find ways to work with the big, hairy-knuckled corporation," said Barker.

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[Photograph: Erin Zimmer]

Next on Ben & Jerry's make-the-world-a-better-place list: hydrocarbon freezers. There are some already in use in the Boston and D.C. areas, but Ben & Jerry's is still awaiting approval from the EPA for a national roll-out. These use alternative refrigerants instead of the hydrofluorocarbon (scary word for earth-harming freezers gases) in most freezers today. They're probably more for convenience stores than Walmart, but because of Unilever's huge distribution, the less-ozone-killing iceboxes can be spread out all over the country.

Ben & Jerry's is also hustling to become completely fair trade by the end of 2013. That means they have to figure out how to source all 121 of their ingredients from fully certified sources. Well, not all—in some cases, it doesn't make sense. They're not going all the way for Pakistan for almonds if a local nut farmer is growing them sustainably. They're also not sacrificing flavor for anything. (Don't you worry, those fair trade cookie dough nuggets will taste exactly the same.)

Will Walmart eventually pay more attention to fair trade products? Maybe. Maybe not.
Does Walmart still have major issues? Of course. (Do I still naturally gravitate to Target? Yes.) But Walmart remains one of the largest multinational grocery chains, so when they make food-related decisions, the entire system feels it. And Ben & Jerry's is just trying to convince them to make the right decisions.

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