Ben Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield gives the keynote talk at SoCal Energy Water + Green Living Summit in Rancho Mirage. (October 27, 2016)
Richard Lui/The Desert Sun
The founders of Ben Jerry’s realized they were “business people” after they won a fight with Pillsbury.
The fight, according to founder Jerry Greenfield, started in the early 1980s. Pillsbury — which owned Haagen-Dazs — ordered a distribution company to stop carrying Ben Jerry’s, an upstart competitor, or the much larger Pillsbury would cancel its contract.
Greenfield and the company’s co-founder, Ben Cohen, were just “two Vermont hippies,” Greenfield said. So they undertook an old-fashioned direct action campaign. Greenfield marched outside Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis, waving a picket sign that demanded, “What’s the doughboy afraid of?” They paid for a classified ad in Rolling Stone, asking readers to help their upstart ice cream shop fight a big corporation. Then they printed an 800 number on their packaging. When people called, they received a shipment containing form letters to the Federal Trade Commission, a bumper sticker, and a “what’s the doughboy afraid of?” t-shirt.
The action worked, in the end — Pillsbury backed down, Greenfield said. And he said the company’s commitment to social justice grew out of that cheeky battle. Today, Ben Jerry’s tracks greenhouse gas emissions throughout the manufacturing process, installs solar arrays at its manufacturing plants, helps farms install sustainable equipment, and even served cones to negotiators at the United Nations climate talks in Paris in 2015.
“Very broadly speaking, it is about doing less bad and doing more good,” Greenfield said. “For Ben Jerry’s, an environmental mission, a mission of sustainability, is not just about polar bears, it’s not just about retreating ice sheets… it’s a matter of justice, climate justice. The idea is that it’s the world’s most poorest and most vulnerable citizens, who had no role in creating this problem, and yet they will pay the steepest price and have the least ability to adapt to a dangerously warming world.”
Greenfield shared his experiences during the eighth annual SoCal Energy + Water + Green Living Summit on Thursday, where industry leaders gathered to discuss renewable energy development, habitat conservation, the Salton Sea and the Colorado River. Speakers repeatedly drew attention to the human impacts of climate change, including respiratory illnesses, drought and energy costs.
“It isn’t about the melting ice caps and it isn’t about the polar bears. It’s about people,” reiterated California state Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella). “People should be at the center of setting these goals… (In the Coachella Valley), we have a unique opportunity to address the Salton Sea, and maybe the redirection of water in the region. We have the opportunity to integrate other renewable energies into the portfolio for the state of California, and then the opportunity to address this major public health issue that already exists in our backyard and improve the quality of life for folks in our area.”
Garcia said he feels the Coachella Valley — and the state — have momentum.
There’s momentum at the Salton Sea, after the state recently set aside $80 million for long-awaited restoration projects at California’s largest lake. President Barack Obama mentioned the sea in a recent climate policy speech at Lake Tahoe. But local experts think fully restoring the sea would cost more like $3 billion. And a critical deadline looms — a water transfer agreement scheduled to take effect in 2017 will cut water supplies to the Salton Sea by about a third.
Last month, national leaders finalized the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which functions as a zoning plan for more than 10 million acres of the Southern California desert. It sets aside about 388,000 acres for renewable energy development and preserves millions of acres for wildlife. Leaders from solar, wind and environmental groups sparred with the plan’s designers and one another about whether developing that amount of land will actually help California reach its ambitious climate goals.
At the same time, California’s historic drought wears on, and water managers from the California Department of Water Resources, Metropolitan Water District and Imperial Irrigation District agreed that current water sources, including the Colorado River, will be less reliable in the future, as climate change makes prolonged droughts more common.
“Over time, we expect the reliability to decrease, because right now the system is sitting right on that edge where it either triggers shortage or doesn’t trigger shortage,” said Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager and deputy drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources. “We’ve been taking money out of the checking account but not replenishing it in the wet years.”
California’s much-discussed climate goals — for the state’s residents and businesses to get 33 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 50 percent by 2050, and for the state to slash greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 — are “aggressive,” said Dawn Wilson, director of environmental policy and sustainability for Southern California Edison. But the state is on track to meet the 2020 goal, and many industry leaders said the state’s policies set the standard for a nation in which many people are still arguing about whether climate change is real.
Ben Jerry’s, for its part, wants to reduce its emissions by 80 percent overall by 2050.
“What’s become clear to us is that Ben Jerry’s working internally is not going to be enough to help us reach these long-term goals. In order to reach those deep reductions, it’s going to take economy-wide changes,” Greenfield said. “Things like getting off fossil fuels, transitioning to greenhouse gas-free transportation, changing agriculture so it becomes a carbon sink and not a source of carbon generation… we need to do more than just focus internally, because it’s not going to be enough.”
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians was the presenting sponsor of the Summit, which was organized by Burke Rix Communications and The Desert Sun.