Back in 2000, when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold their famously cool ice-cream company to the conglomerate Unilever for $326 million, the deal provoked mixed emotions in people like Jeffrey Hollender, COO of Seventh Generation, a leading maker of environmentally safe household products.
On the one hand, Hollender and other leaders of the so-called Corporate Social Responsibility movement hated to see Ben & Jerry’s, the leading exponent of “caring capitalism … gobbled up by the enemy.” But Hollender also admits he couldn’t help but feel good about the healthy purchase price — a 150 percent premium over the trading price of Ben & Jerry’s stock when the takeover began. The whopping numbers proved Hollender’s raison d’tre was right: Business can do good on the social and environmental fronts, and profit at the same time.
That’s the thesis of What Matters Most: How a Small Group of Pioneers Is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Business Is Listening (Basic Books). Hollender and coauthor Stephen Fenichell argue that the day is long gone when business could focus solely on the bottom line. The duo believes that winning companies concentrate not only on their internal financial health, but also on “social externalities” such as pollution, community involvement, and the workplace environment. Examining challenges faced by Shell, Intel, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and others, they seek to demonstrate that corporate social responsibility, while never easy, is “a viable, vital, and sustainable business strategy.”