Ever since Ben & Jerry’s announced their non-dairy ice cream line in 2015, it’s been showing up in news stories and social media feeds galore. But is it really vegan-friendly?
First released in spring 2016, Ben & Jerry’s almond milk-based ice cream was relatively easy to come by. Hence, the internet was abuzz with this new plant-based ice cream. While I did give one of the flavors a try right when it was released, I’ve since decided to no longer buy or eat Ben & Jerry’s plant-based ice cream, for two reasons.
It’s Just Okay
First, I didn’t find their ice cream anything spectacular. It tasted good, but there are so many absolutely phenomenal vegan ice creams on the market right now that it really didn’t capture my fancy as much as I would have liked.
I do appreciate that it’s abundantly available. Where Ben & Jerry’s already had a presence at most conventional groceries, other vegan ice cream brands were (and still are) working tirelessly to get established outside of mom-and-pop shops and natural grocers. That’s of course changing, and every day I see more and more vegan brands in my nearby supermarket. So, as I said, with ample vegan ice cream alternatives that are increasingly accessible and that taste amazing (Nada Moo and Coconut Bliss come to mind!), Ben & Jerry’s really can’t compete.
But there’s another reason why I’ve chosen to keep Ben & Jerry’s out of my home and belly. And that has to do with the chocolate they use.
Is it Really Vegan?
“But the packaging says ‘certified vegan’!”
It sure does! Ben & Jerry’s almond milk ice cream is certified ‘100% vegan’ by Vegan Action. Vegan Action defines a product as vegan if it contains “no animal or animal by-products to include flesh, bones, dairy, eggs, honey, fur, leather, wool, down feathers, and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals.” But Vegan Action says nothing about means of production. A serious oversight, if you ask me.
I typically don’t think there are many grey areas when it comes to veganism. Actually, I don’t think there are any grey areas to veganism. I draw a hard line and something is either on the vegan side or the dark side. There aren’t any “mostly vegan” products—those products are simply not vegan.
But I recognize that the way I draw my line might differ from how others draw their line. So, if you were to ask me if I thought Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was vegan, I find myself compelled to respond, “it depends.”
On what does it depend? Well, whether or not you see Ben & Jerry’s ice cream as vegan-friendly depends on your ethics and how you define veganism.
To me, I would expand the Vegan Action definition to recognize vegan products as those that avoid, to the greatest extent possible, the exploitation, abuse, and killing of all animals—and in my definition of “animals,” I most certainly include humans.
So my veganism extends an interest in supporting products that are, for example, fair-trade and ethically-sourced. I also avoid products which might have been produced through conditions which exploit workers. Fast fashion is a great example of an industry where working conditions (e.g., “sweat shops”) typically exploit employees.
Similarly, there’s this issue of “conflict chocolate.”
To me, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is decidedly not vegan—it’s on the dark side of that vegan line in the sand. Ben & Jerry’s uses cocoa sourced from farms on the Ivory Coast of Western Africa—a region that’s one of the worst offenders when it comes to child labor.
The Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) is an organization dedicated to creating a more just and sustainable world through empowering food choices. The F.E.P. researches and reports on animal abuse on farms, natural resource destruction and depletion, inequitable access to healthy foods, and also on the unfair working conditions for produce workers.
According to F.E.P. research, “[a]pproximately 1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana may be exposed to the worst forms of child labor on cocoa farms.” [Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer as quoted by Food Empowerment Project.]
Fortunately, the F.E.P. Chocolate List makes purchasing ethical chocolate easy by sorting companies as either recommended or not. So what do they have to say about Ben & Jerry’s?
“Cannot recommend but are working on the issues in various ways”
The F.E.P. elaborates: “These are companies that responded to our request for information and are either under a particular certification, such as organic, and/or have indicated to us that they are aware of the slavery issue and care enough to work on it, but, unfortunately, their chocolate still comes from non-worker owned cooperatives in Western Africa.” (Read more about the F.E.P. classifications of chocolate manufacturers here.)
In my opinion, it is seriously anti-vegan to fight for the lives of animals while at the same time chowing down on chocolate made from cocoa beans that might have been harvested by children working in slave-like conditions. So, until Ben & Jerry’s can elaborate further, I have a hard time even calling their almond milk ice cream “vegan.”
Seeking Change from Ben & Jerry’s
Many thanks to the hosts of the Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack podcast for leading an effort to get information from Ben & Jerry’s about sourcing their chocolate. Co-host Callie really took a passionate stance in her investigation, which included a Change.org petition asking Ben & Jerry’s to disclose their chocolate sourcing. While Ben & Jerry’s did ultimately respond to this petition in May of 2017, learning that their cocoa was from the Ivory Coast, of course, wasn’t the news consumers wanted to hear.
Perhaps there’s hope, yet.
It would seem that an initial Change.org petition was a contributing factor in Ben & Jerry’s announcement to release a plant-based ice cream in the first place. So it’s not unfathomable that consumer actions, like the petition started by Callie or voicing opinions directly to the company, could encourage Ben & Jerry’s to identify a worker-owned cooperative cocoa farm to source their ingredients instead.
Until then, I cannot be confident that the chocolate used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream does not exploit children and people in slave-like conditions; thus, I cannot be comfortable in consuming their products, or even considering them to be a vegan-friendly company.
Therefor, you won’t spot me eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream any time soon.