Tuesday , May 28 2024

Woke brands’ chickens are coming home to roost

This article was first published here.

Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s is perhaps the world’s most aggressively “woke” brand. By running campaigns on international geopolitics, immigration policy and culture war issues, Ben & Jerry’s has made a name for itself as a taboo-smasher willing to serve dessert with a side of aggressive virtue-signalling.

But now Ben & Jerry’s chickens have come home to roost. Unilever, the British food giant that is Ben & Jerry’s parent company, is disowning its rebellious child — announcing it is carving off its ice cream business from the rest of the company and signalling it is open to a sale. Naturally, some commentary claims this is a business-only decision and that Ben & Jerry’s relentless progressive campaigning played no part in it. That’s hard to believe given the way Ben & Jerry’s seems willing to prioritize its politics over its bottom line.

Anuradha Mittal, Ben & Jerry’s board chair, is also executive director of the Oakland Institute, a left-wing think tank and pressure group. The resulting conflict of interest between business and politics is clear. Mittal seldom resisted the temptation to use her mega-famous ice cream brand to promote her think-tank’s campaigns.

Tensions between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever have often boiled over into public view. Unilever investor and board member Nelson Peltz told the Financial Times just this year: “Ben & Jerry’s job is to sell ice cream, not to make political statements. And these people use anything for a soapbox that they have no right to do.” Ben & Jerry’s decision to pull sales in “the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories” even led to a legal battle when Unilever tried to block it.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the business relationship between Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s is ending in divorce. The real question is how they stayed together so long. Unilever now looks naive for not pulling the rug out from under Ben & Jerry’s sooner. The “go woke, go broke” rule is now so well-known as to be cliched. Recent attempts by big brands like Nike, Budweiser and Coca-Cola to veer into wokeism backfired spectacularly. Why would Ben & Jerry’s be any different?

For a level-headed business like Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s represented a whole new set of challenges. Other firms’ woke faux pas were most likely a result of marketing gone wrong. They were trying to sell more product; they just went about it the wrong way. Ben & Jerry’s, on the other hand, seems perfectly happy selling fewer products and making less money if that helps its political campaigns succeed. Making statements like “America should give Mount Rushmore back to Indigenous tribes” — on July 4, no less — was always going to repel more customers than it attracted. And unlike Budweiser and others, when one of its campaigns triggers a fierce backlash, Ben & Jerry’s does not apologize; it doubles down. It was even willing to allow its activism to affect its supply chains. Since 2017, it has sworn off palm oil, usually a key ingredient in mass-produced ice cream. Bashing palm oil has become a woke favourite in recent years, for its supposed role in deforestation.

But the reality is rather different. In fact, palm oil has undergone something of green restoration in recent years. A number of initiatives, including industry commitments, have led to a sharp reduction in forest loss, per Global Forest Watch. Analysis from Our World in Data suggests that if all brands boycotted palm oil, as Ben & Jerry’s has done, hundreds of millions of hectares of extra land would need bulldozing. Vegetable oil substitutes for palm oil are uniformly worse for the planet. By being less land-efficient, they fuel deforestation at a considerably faster rate. Using less land allows palm oil producers to keep costs down, giving them a leg up over competitors. Using palm oil is a sensible business decision with green credentials to boot.

By leaning into woke virtue-signalling at all costs, however, Ben & Jerry’s misses that nuance and, crucially, turns a blind eye to the transformative power of innovation and the free market to turn around a product’s sustainability score.

Ben & Jerry’s commitment to shooting itself and the environment in the foot is in a way perversely admirable. Even in the face of its abandonment by Unilever, it remains defiant. But for the rest of the business world, the obvious lesson is to be careful whom you acquire and think very hard about granting a subsidiary what Unilever gave Ben & Jerry’s in 2000: free rein to pursue its “social mission.”

Go woke, go broke.

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