The Vermont-based company signed an agreement outlining these goals, dubbed “Milk with Dignity,” with the Migrant Justice farm worker’s association on Oct. 3.
A survey of Ben & Jerry’s workers found 40% didn’t get a day off and 40% weren’t paid a minimum wage. The workers are seeking minimum housing standards for farm-provided housing as well. An independent nonprofit standards council is being set up to work with the farmers and the farm workers to ensure fair treatment.
All the farms supplying milk to Ben & Jerry’s will eventually be required to participate in the program. About 85% percent of the milk used for the brand’s North American-made ice cream comes from about 80 Vermont dairy farms, many of which rely on immigrant labor.
Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim told Food Manufacturing any extra money paid to farmers under the new agreement would not be passed through as ice cream price hikes, but that the company would absorb the cost. This shouldn’t put too much of a dent in the brand — the ice cream maker reported sales of $477.1 million for fiscal 2016, making it the third most popular ice cream brand in the U.S., according to Statista.
Solheim became head of Ben & Jerry’s in 2000 after a stint at Unilever, the Dutch-British consumer goods conglomerate which bought the ice cream company for about $326 million that same year. Unilever also owns the Breyer’s ice cream brand. Solheim has publicly stated that he told Unilever he wanted to “re-radicalize” Ben & Jerry’s, and that the new owners had agreed. According to some accounts, that direction has mostly been maintained.
This new human rights agreement reflects the ice cream maker’s unique culture, known for quirky ice-cream flavors such as Cherry Garcia, Chunky Money and Phish Food. The initiative also is likely to please fans, and consumers are growing more conscious of employee welfare standards. Solheim claims the agreement is the first of its kind in the American dairy industry, and possibly the world.
The “Milk with Dignity” agreement wasn’t a slam dunk, however. It took about two years to negotiate and was pushed along by dairy workers and supporters marching to a company factory in Waterbury, Vermont, this past June to express their frustration with a perceived lack of progress on Ben & Jerry’s part.
Because of these challenges, it seems unlikely that other U.S. ice cream companies will follow the Ben & Jerry’s lead and improve pay and working conditions unless dairy workers organize and pressure them to do so.