Across from the frozen Texas Toasts and next to the 100-calorie Halo Tops sits a fortress of blue pints. You might know the brand for its eccentric packaging ringed by the Vermont hills or those bites of cookie dough tucked under rich folds of ice cream. But most distinct are its cleverly-named, eccentric flavors often tied to cable television hosts or nationwide social justice movements: Save Our Swirled, a raspberry-fudge swirl meant to raise awareness about climate change, Justice ReMix’d, a cinnamon and chocolate combo that donated a percentage of profits to criminal justice reform organizations, and I Dough, I Dough, a cookie-dough ice cream that celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Ben and Jerry’s makes strolling down the ice cream aisle feel like a march in protest against everything systemically corrupt about the world. And it is not alone.
For so long, the unofficial rulebook of corporate America segregated business from politics. Taking stances meant potentially alienating shareholders, employees, and customers. According to Dr. Uptal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University, it could also distract managers from what business does best –– business. But in order to redefine these capitalist-driven goals of maximizing shareholder profit, several companies have publicized their stances on social justice issues central to their values.
In the past year, protests over racial injustice and threats to U.S. democracy have sparked a wave of activism across corporate America. Company leaders have hosted community conversations, signed letters, released statements, promised donations, and shared hashtags picked up from their fifteen-year-old daughters. But with many of these objectives left unmet, the value of corporate activism runs into pressing questions: What really defines an “activist” company? How can companies engage authentically and effectively in activism, without exploiting social-justice issues as marketing tactics? And how can we, as consumers, identify and endorse the companies who are driving social change?
“We all shared a strong love for nature and the outdoors,” said Vincent Stanley, Patagonia’s Director of Philosophy and previous Head of Marketing and Sales, in an interview with The Politic. He joined Patagonia in 1973, the year an outdoorsy clan of climbers and surfers founded the company. “If you spend time outside and treasure that experience, you want to protect those places. That’s how our activism was born.”
The company is well-known for producing sustainable outdoorswear, taking unapologetic stances on climate change and against its skeptics, publishing books on the environment, and encouraging the purchase of its second-hand clothing.
“To me, Patagonia upholds their corporate values,” said Anna Albright, an Environmental Studies major who leads the Environmental Social Governance (ESG) team for the Dwight Hall Socially Responsible Investment Fund. “If you walk by a Patagonia store in New Haven, you’ll see a lot of their messaging is about climate change. They have numerous programs––such as repairing worn clothes for free––that promote sustainability.”
Stanley spearheaded many of these initiatives, one of which includes the Footprint Chronicles.
“In the mid-80s, we really didn’t know how we were impacting the environment,” he said. “Once we started to really investigate the environmental harm of our products, we realized that the cotton we used required an intense use of chemicals and other substances harmful to the environment.”
The Footprint Chronicles reveals the greenhouse gases emitted, resources required, and labor employed in the production of a certain product.
“The idea was to talk about what we are proud of about that product, what we were not so proud of, including the environmental and social problems,” explained Stanley.
Work like this is not as simple as signing a public letter or posting an empty black square on Instagram in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “People really liked [The Footprint Chronicles], but it was challenging to keep up with the information, especially as we were changing factories.”
In addition, initiatives like The Footprint Chronicles reveal to customers how the business itself can fall short of sustainable goals, going against the traditional business rulebook that encourages entrepreneurs to always pitch the best version of their products.
In 2011, Stanley oversaw an advertising campaign in The New York Times on Black Friday. Instead of flaunting the fleece’s most marketable features, the full-page ad said: “DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.” Below the jacket’s image was a list of the 36 gallons of water required to produce the jacket (enough to fill the daily needs of 45 people), the 20 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted (24 times the weight of the jacket), and the amount of waste produced (two-thirds of its weight in waste). To Stanley, this advertisement felt like coming clean: “We don’t know how to make anything that gives back to the planet as much as we take from it. As a producer, we should be careful about what we make. As consumers, we shouldn’t be buying so much stuff.”
“I think they are really shooting themselves in the foot here,” said Albright. “They get so much revenue through these vests. To say ‘we are not doing that anymore because we don’t like what those businesses stand for,’ is so insanely stupid from a business perspective. They are really trying to embody their values.”
However, Patagonia still fails to embody their values in many ways. Take a look at their entirely white executive team. Or even consider their customer demographics, made up primarily of people who can afford the high-priced products. According to Helixa Marketing, the biggest segment of Patagonia’s fans includes older married men aged 55-69, who are 20% more likely than the average U.S. adult to make an income over $100K. Can Patagonia still be regarded as an “activist” company, preaching sustainability while only being worn by top income earners?
Just like with Patagonia, social responsibility is baked into the ethos of Ben and Jerry’s. But a similar hypocrisy is at play.
It was the summer of 1978: The Vietnam War was over, and Egypt and Israel had just signed a peace treaty at Camp David. The hour was ripe for two tie-dye-clad, flip-flop-wearing hippies––Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield––to open an ice cream shop in a remodeled gas station in Burlington, Vermont. As the business bloomed from its initial $12,000 investment, the owners began packing up pints and distributing them across mom-and-pop stores in Vermont.
“Ben & Jerry’s mission was developed over the first 10 years of the business, supported by the cofounders,” said Sean Greenwood, the company’s Director of PR & Communications, in an interview with The Politic. He referred to the company’s three-pronged value system stated explicitly on their public website: human rights and dignity; social and economic justice; and environmental protection, restoration, and regeneration.
“As they added more workers to the organization, those individuals became empowered to bring the mission to life. It is still a guiding force for the organization today,” he said.
Greenwood’s usage of the word “still” alludes to an internal seismic shift in 2000, when Unilever, the huge grocery store conglomerate that owns almost every homecare brand, bought Ben and Jerry’s. Though Cohen and Greenfield still involve themselves in promoting social-justice campaigns, this buy-out complicates the company’s ability to preserve its values.
“It’s important to remember that Ben and Jerry’s is owned by Unilever, and though the company is a certified B Corp, their marketing tactics are still capitalist and extremely performative,” Albright said. “They name an ice cream and make a Twitter statement, but they are just trying to make themselves interesting to liberal young people.”
On July 19, 2021, Ben and Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling their products in Israeli-occupied territories. Some major shareholders responded harshly, with New Jersey’s Division of Investment committing to divesting $182 million from Unilever. The Unilever stock price fell four points within the three days of the Ben and Jerry’s announcement.
“The business does not get involved in controversy for controversy’s sake. It just tries to follow its mission and values and act on those accordingly,” Greenwood said. “To us it’s more important that we practice our business values correctly than trying to make more money.”
“They are visibly hemorrhaging cash and they are not backing down,” said Elishevlyne Eliason ’25, a Political Science and English double major and social justice advocate. “At the end of the day, they are getting the point out there. Even if it is controversial, it’s still out there.”
So does the authenticity of a company’s activism really matter? Maybe the reasoning is irrelevant: Regardless of its glib pint names and performative marketing tactics, Ben and Jerry’s is bringing attention to neglected issues.
Not every company is like Patagonia or Ben and Jerry’s. Most are founded to make profit, not to promote social justice. However, customers –– particularly younger ones –– believe that all companies hold a responsibility to speak out against injustice, which could have broader implications on their workforce, customer base, and society at large.
But when pressured to broadcast political statements, companies can make false promises and leverage social justice movements to gain popularity. In the past decade, the term “greenwashing” has been used to describe apparel companies who boast their products are “sustainable,” “green,” or “environmentally conscious” when their products are, in fact, not.
H&M, a fast-fashion pioneer that produces three billion articles of clothing per year, sits on top of $4.1 billion dollars worth of unsold clothes, some of which is burned for fuel. H&M has ostensibly addressed their environmental impact, creating a ‘Conscious’ sustainable fashion collection that uses eco-friendly materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester. But in reality, the most direct way for H&M’s leadership to reduce the company’s environmental footprint would be to produce fewer clothes. “Large companies by and large can’t be 100 percent sustainable. And you can’t expect everyone to have or have access to clothing that is sustainable,” said Tara Bhat ’25, a climate activist. “I think the solution is for companies to be more transparent, especially companies who claim that they are doing something sustainable. Say and commit, or don’t claim it all.”
Scott Reed, who oversaw political strategy for the Chamber of Commerce, advises business leaders to remain political while building their influence in the company’s surrounding community. “My advice is: Play the long game,” Reed told The Wall Street Journal. “Don’t react to the daily news of wokeism, and work with your friends and grow your partnerships in the community back at home. I’d double down back at home because that’s where you have real influence, with your employee base and with your impact on the community.”
Corporate activism is an oxymoron. At the end of the day, businesses have to make a profit to keep running, sometimes exploiting politics to attract customers. Even Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s, two pioneers of corporate activism, can be caught in hypocrisy. But that doesn’t mean corporate America should avoid activism altogether — especially at the local level, companies can make a real impact in their communities, where they have direct influence and can be held more accountable.