Ice Cream on Trial: Ben & Jerry’s Grapples with Accusations of Greenwashing


Cherry Garcia, one of the most iconic Ben & Jerry’s pints.

WATERBURY — Ben & Jerry’s, every ice cream lover’s guilty pleasure, was sued by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) on the grounds of false advertising in July of 2018. Anyone who has eaten Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is familiar with the company’s iconic happy cow imagery that evokes a hippie, social justice-oriented and green marketing platform. But what they probably don’t know is that this platform might not be completely warranted.

The OCA recently tested 11 flavors of Ben & Jerry’s most popular ice cream flavors, including Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, The Tonight Dough and Chocolate Fudge Brownie, for an herbicide called glyphosate. Glyphosate is found in Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup, which has been banned in many countries due to research that has shown it is a “probable human carcinogen.” The results of the study, published by New York Times, showed all 11 flavors except Cherry Garcia tested positive for the herbicide.

While the company avoids implying that the lawsuit unfairly targets them, a recent statement released by Ben & Jerry’s attempts to put the OCA’s results into context. Many other everyday food items and products on the market, including organic whole wheat bread and whole grain oat breakfast cereal, have tested much higher for glyphosate than Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The page also cites both the Health Research Institute Laboratories’ comment that the amounts of glyphosate found “would seem totally irrelevant,” as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s claim that it would take inordinate amounts of glyphosate to affect a child.

The lawsuit also accuses Ben & Jerry’s of overstating their commitment to high animal welfare standards. Such advertising has historically brought in a loyal, niche consumer base. The company’s “Caring Dairy” program that sets standards for the treatment of their cows is commendable in theory. However, in reality  — according to the OCA and Regeneration Vermont ­— only about 25% of the farms from which Ben & Jerry’s receives milk actually adhere to the standards.

40 to 79% of the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in Vermont’s waterways comes from dairy farms. And, almost all of the pesticide pollution comes from these dairies.”

The milk and cream that Ben & Jerry’s uses for their beloved flavors of ice cream are sourced from a co-op in St. Albans City, Vermont that combines milk received from both local organic dairy farms and large factory-style dairy farms. These factory-style dairy farms use Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that might speed up the process of getting milk, but do not fall in line with the set standards.

Protestors also claim mega-dairies in Vermont that supply large companies like Cabot and Ben & Jerry’s are polluting lakes and streams. Lake Champlain is one of 100 waterways now labeled as “impaired” according to Regeneration Vermont, a non-profit organization based in Walden, Vermont. The organization’s site states that “40 to 79% of the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in Vermont’s waterways comes from dairy farms. And, almost all of the pesticide pollution comes from these dairies.”

The Middlebury Campus reached out to Ben & Jerry’s, however they declined to comment specifically regarding the lawsuit.

“A lot of people aren’t properly educated about many environmental issues that exist and how severe/important addressing these issues are,” said Hannah Gheller ’22. “Education to the masses and translating that into policy change would be important steps in changing this.”

A Ben & Jerry’s factory tour guide, Noel Cramer, spoke on ways that the company attempts to be as green as possible. He noted the wastewater treatment site in Waterbury, Vermont that uses recycled grey water for the factory’s toilets and the anaerobic digester that uses methane and natural gases to generate heat and electricity. He further stressed the evaporative cooling technologies used to chill the ice cream faster, as well as the research being done on alternative packaging. Ultimately, Cramer brought the focus back to Ben & Jerry’s mission statement claiming that for the company, “it’s not just reducing their footprint, but eliminating it” as best they can.

Michael Colby, a Vermont writer and maple syrup producer, wrote in the VTDigger, “If [Ben & Jerry’s] took the lead … the entire state could begin a transition away from the kind of industrial, commodity-based dairy system that is wreaking so much havoc with Vermont’s agriculture — and culture.”

Several Middlebury College students, frequent consumers of the frozen treats made by Ben & Jerry’s offered their opinions on the Ben & Jerry’s lawsuit.

“It’s definitely something to address, but if a lot of companies’ products contain glyphosate it’s not fair to target them,” said Anna Saviano ’22. “But if you think of it in terms of media coverage, the attention goes a long way and something like this has to start somewhere.”

Max Taxman ’22 agreed that the lawsuit helps to hold companies accountable to their advertising. “[But] it seems more important to target companies that are more significantly impacting the environment,” he said. “You could argue that all non-vegan farm-related industries are bad for the environment, and say that they should all be targeted.”

Taxman speculated that the lawsuit could have a significant impact on Ben & Jerry’s as the company gains a lot of social capital from their environmentally friendly marketing.

“If the claims in the lawsuit are true, this is a major case of corporate greenwashing,” said Van Barth ’21. Whether the lawsuit will actually create any change in the dairy industry, to their ingredients list or to their marketing platform, well, I guess we’ll just have to see.

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