MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. is returning to its social activism roots, attracting its aging-hippie founders back to the company for the first time in years, as it lobbies to shift federal spending from nuclear missiles to children's programs.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are leading the company's American Pie campaign, designed to persuade consumers to demand a change in spending priorities. Their goal is to shift $13 billion that now pays to maintain thousands of nuclear bombs into pediatric health insurance, schools, or other programs for kids.
``Do you really need 10,000 nuclear bombs?" Greenfield asked in a phone interview from Washington, where he and Cohen kicked off the campaign yester day. ``How many nuclear bombs are you going to send anywhere? Five? 10?"
Greenfield and Cohen gained fame as they parlayed their business, founded after they took correspondence courses on making ice cream, into a multimillion-dollar publicly traded company that became the subject of a bidding war. Dutch conglomerate Unilever won in 2000 with a $326 million bid. Cohen and Greenfield have since kept away, disillusioned that Unilever has not vigorously pursued the mission of corporate social responsibility it accepted with the purchase.
That's changing this week as the company launches American Pie.
The company has created a new ice cream flavor of that name, made from apples and pie crust pieces. Lids from pints of ice cream will carry information about ways to get involved in the campaign. A new section of the Ben & Jerry's website is dedicated to the initiative. And Cohen and Greenfield have set out on a multicity tour to carry the message.
``I think that business is the most powerful force in the country," Cohen said. ``When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just in its narrow self interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made."
That's long been the view of Cohen and Greenfield, but they believed it became little more than a marketing ploy after Unilever took over. So they let the company go its own way, albeit with their pictures still on the packaging. Then Walt Freese joined as chief executive of Ben & Jerry's a year-and-a-half ago. He called the founders and began a series of meetings with them. He laid out ideas for new forms of social activism, which since the acquisition had included expanding the policy of buying products from farmers who advocate sustainable agriculture. Eventually, Freese proposed the new campaign.
``As long as the company is going to do meaningful actions that have a strong social benefit, I'm happy to support it," Cohen said.