Member Blog: Social Justice & Equity in a Covid-19 World
By Alexandra Polla, Sustainable Innovation MBA graduate, The University of Vermont
In the pre-COVID-19 world, mass consumption was the way of life for most consumers while companies continuously turned a blind eye to the compounding climate and social inequity crisis they had a hand in. For generations, it was believed that profit powered the planet. Prioritizing shareholders rather than stakeholders, businesses created an economy with the assumption that there was no room for social equity in business. Largely due to brands wanting to avoid political controversy, the status quo was to attract the masses and gain as many consumers as possible. Avoiding openly communicating a brand’s values and beliefs, many brands chose to quietly pour millions of dollars into independent superpolitical action committees to influence elections without directly contributing to a single candidate (McCamy).
Ben & Jerry’s has had a long history of going against this status quo by loudly advocating for social equity while simultaneously building equitable practices into their value chain. For over 35 years, Ben & Jerry’s has been a partner to the LGBTQ community starting locally in Vermont, then spreading across the globe. In 1989, they were a pioneer in Vermont by offering health insurance to same sex partners of employees. Beyond internal operations, the company openly supported Vermont’s Civil Union Bill in 1991 and the Employment Non-Discrimination act in 2001. Celebrating gay marriage in Vermont, they renamed their ‘Chubby Hubby’ flavor to ‘Hubby Hubby’ in 2009. Their actions then spread across the globe as they partnered with Stonewall to support marriage equality in the UK in 2013, then supporting marriage equality in Australia, and participating in the Tokyo pride parade. Their support for the LGBTQ community and social justice is openly communicated to consumers with the additional flavor creations of ‘Apple-y Ever After’, ‘I Dough, I Dough’, ‘EngageMint Party’, ‘Home Sweet Honey Comb’ and ‘One Sweet World’ (Ben & Jerry’s, “Equality for All Is Our Pride and Joy”). These flavors donated funds to the Human Rights Campaign, the North Carolina NAACP, the International Rescue Committee, and the New Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This communicates their social and political beliefs with transparency and consistency to let consumers know where the brand’s values exist (Ben & Jerry’s, “5 Ben & Jerry’s Flavors On a Mission”).
While Ben & Jerry’s piloted social justice and value transparency for decades, COVID-19 is perhaps the wake-up call that other brands need. Suddenly, we are all reminded that humans are universally vulnerable and need to look out for one another. Rather than encouraging equity and growth during this time of crisis, the current administration continues to take regressive action; for example, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits sex discrimination, was repealed and leaves over a million Americans vulnerable (Hope). Inciting racial profiling and violence, President Trump continued to refer to COVID-19 through racially-charged names, such as ‘Chinese Virus’ or ‘Kung Flu’.
With the current administration perpetuating divisive actions and language, there is now a larger group of people of who can promote social justice, and businesses are now expected to speak up on social justice issues. According to the latest Porter Novelli Purpose Tracker, consumers are pushing brands to step up; 71% of US consumers believe companies have more responsibility to address social justice issues; and 56% of consumers consider companies that do not address social justice issues are out of touch. Additionally, 80% of consumers demand that companies need to recognize their role in systemic racial inequality while also being transparent about past mistakes and biases (Sheehan). Brands that have previously removed themselves from this arena must now engage with their internal and external stakeholders and act. The evidence supporting the time is now for brands to actively play a role in social justice is at an all-time high.
A preponderant 79% of millennial employees are loyal to companies that care about their impact on society (Cotton). Ben & Jerry’s pioneered a new business model coined ‘the linked prosperity business model’. This model functions under the belief that as the business succeeds, stakeholders, suppliers and employees will succeed as well. Ben & Jerry’s main suppliers, Greyston Bakery and Rhino foods, provide equitable and transformational employment opportunities to those who are considered as ‘un-hirable’ to other employers (Ben & Jerry’s, “Greyston Bakery: Great Brownies with a Greater-Good Mission”). This includes those with a criminal history, individuals who have experienced homelessness, and those who have struggled with addiction (Chhabra). By incorporating Greyston Bakery and Rhino Foods into their supply chain, they are bettering not only themselves, but the brands, the employees, and the communities they live in (Ben & Jerry’s, “Rhino Foods: The People Behind Those Delicious Chunks of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough”; Michalak).
Effects & Prediction
The linked prosperity business model is the empathetic approach that may become the norm for business while navigating the pandemic (Sneader and Sternfels). Under this business model, employee health and wellness are prioritized, leading to increased health and wellness in employee communities. This business model requires brands to move away from philanthropy and instead incorporate social justice into everything they do. By embedding social justice
values into operations, as the company scales up, so does their positive impact. Through this model, businesses can meet the demands of their customers and employees by incorporating purpose into their functionality, while also creating equitable employment opportunities for those who are disproportion- ately impacted by the virus (CDCP). This model has proven entirely effective for Ben & Jerry’s as the domestic leader of ice cream sales in 2019 (Statista). COVID-19 has forced business to adapt with urgency and agility, and it is in these adaptations is where opportunity for resilience and purpose can be found to create competitive advantage in a post-COVID-19 world.
To stay competitive, businesses can combine purpose and resilience to prevent shocks to their business. COVID-19 has presented an opportunity where every human can relate to one another by being vulnerable to the same virus. This allows brands to strategize and better empathize with their stakeholders to begin transforming towards a purpose driven business and overall, a purpose driven economy. By working with suppliers who operate similarly to a linked prosperity business model, they can ensure that their suppliers’ employees will stay healthy and the business can continue to function normally. While this reduces shock points in their supply chain, it also contributes to an equitable value chain as these employees are making a livable wage and working in healthy conditions. This will create an influx of human-centered design within businesses. Brands will increasingly become more concerned about what their purpose is and how that aligns with what their customers’ and employees’ value. The most competitive brands will be those that are able to empathize with their stakeholders and deeply understand their realities and develop a business model to meet their needs (Dam and Siang).
Ben & Jerry’s. “5 Ben & Jerry’s Flavors On a Mission.” Ben & Jerry’s What’s New, 2018, https://ww w.benjerry.com/whats-new/2018/02/social-mission-flavors.
—. “Equality for All Is Our Pride and Joy.” Ben & Jerry’s Flavors, 2017, https://www.benjerry.com/fla vors/equality-for-all.
—. “Greyston Bakery: Great Brownies with a Greater-Good Mission.” Ben & Jerry’s, 2020, https://w ww.benjerry.com/greyston.
—. “Rhino Foods: The People Behind Those Delicious Chunks of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.” Ben & Jerry’s What’s New, 2018, https://www.benjerry.com/whats-new/2015/cook ie-dough-rhino-foods.
CDCP. “Health Equity Considerations & Racial & Ethnic Minority Groups.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no. Community, Work & School, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavi rus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html?CD C_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavi rus%2F2019-ncov%2Fneed-extra-precautions%2Fracial-ethnic-minorities.html.
Chhabra, Esha. “This Company Has $20 Million in Revenues And Hires Anyone Who Wants Work.” Forbes Magazine, Aug. 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/eshachhab ra/2018/08/22/this-10-million-company-does-not-ask-for-a-re sume-or-any-job-experience/#3e2937fa2517.
Cotton, Martha. “Caremongering: The Future of Sustainable Enterprise.” Sustainable Brands, 26 June 2020, https://sustainablebrands.com/read/defining-the-next-economy/ caremongering-the-future-of-sustainable-enterprise?utm_ source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=nl_200629.
Dam, Rikke Friis, and Teo Yu Siang. “Design Thinking: Getting Started with Empathy.” Interaction Design, 25 Aug. 2020, https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/de sign-thinking-getting-started-with-empathy.
Hope, Allison. “Trump Is Kicking the LGBTQ Community While We’re Down.” CNN Opinion, 13 June 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/13/opinions/trump-rolling-back-he alth-care-protections-lgbtq-hope/index.html.
Kopecki, Dawn. “WHO Officials Warn US President Trump against Calling Coronavirus ‘the Chinese Virus.’” CNBC Health and Science, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.cn bc.com/2020/03/18/who-officials-warn-us-presi dent-trump-against-calling-coronavirus-the-chinese-virus.html.
McCamy, Laura. “Companies Donate Millions to Political Causes to Have a Say in the Government– Here Are 10 That Have given the Most in 2018.” Business Insider Politics, 13 Oct. 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/companies-are-influenc ing-politics-by-donating-millions-to-politicians-2018-9.
Michalak. “This Key Metric Is How Ben & Jerry’s Measures Success.” Fast Company, 5 Jan. 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90287777/this-key-met ric-is-how-ben-jerrys-measures-success.
Sheehan, Daniel. “Introducing the Porter Novelli Purpose Tracker: The Business Imperative for Social Justice Today.” Porter Novelli, June 2020, https://www.porternovelli.com/intelli gence/2020/06/18/introducing-the-porter-novelli-purpose-track er-the-business-imperative-for-social-justice-today/.
Sneader, Keving, and Bob Sternfels. “From Surviving to Thriving: Reimagining the Post-COVID-19 Return.” McKinsey & Company Featured Insights, 1 May 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/
Statista. “Top Ice Cream Brands of the United States in 2019, Based on Sales.” Statista Consumer Goods & FMCG, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statis tics/190426/top-ice-cream-brands-in-the-united-states/.
Social Justice & Equity in a Covid-19 World is a part of White Paper, The Future of Sustainability in a Post Covid-19 World produced by recent UVM SI-MBA graduate, Ruchi Nadkarni. The paper includes industry insights, status quo and the effects of COVID-19 and predictions of patterns in sustainable industry. Contributions are from new SI-MBA Graduates and Sustainability Leaders from the University of Vermont; Jared Alvord, Nathaniel Moore, Alexandra Polla, Ruchi Nadkarni, Evan Sanfield, Prakriti Timsina, Daniel Versace, Albert Kittell.