Ice cream mogul Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream is used to raking in the big bucks, but these days he's stamping them too.
Cohen started a nonprofit a couple years ago called Stamp Stampede. Its mission is to "stamp money out of politics" by stamping (literally) paper currency with messages like "Not to be used for bribing politicians," "Stamp money out of politics" and "Corporations are not people."
Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, stamps dollar bills Monday to help spread messages advocating publicly funded elections. It is legal to stamp the bills, Cohen said, as long as the bills are not rendered “unusable.” He uses the bills to purchase goods, tip waiters and spread the word.
The "retired" entrepreneur visited the Valley Isle last week with Honolulu nonprofit Voter Owned Hawaii to advocate for the passage of House Bill 1481. The measure would enable aspiring House of Representatives candidates to qualify for upward of $30,000 in public funds for their campaigns. The goal of both organizations is to create truly democratic elections by curbing the influence wealthy corporations have on policymakers.
"Big corporations give tons of money to our politicians. The system is essentially legalized bribery," Cohen told The Maui News in an interview last week. "If we're going to become anything other than pawns for the corporations, we need to get money out of politics."
It's an initiative that Cohen has mulled since he was still at the helm of the Ben & Jerry's empire, prior to selling it to Unilever in 2000, though he didn't start actively stamping until just a few years ago.
It's been many years since both Cohen and partner Jerry Greenfield stepped back from their franchise, which Cohen said began "because Jerry and I were both failures."
"Jerry wanted to become a doctor and got rejected from every medical school he applied to. I wanted to be a potter and nobody wanted to buy my pottery," Cohen said with a laugh. "We were in our early 20s . . . and the only thing we really enjoyed doing was eating."
The two friends - who met in junior high as the "two slowest, fattest kids in gym class" - opted to start their homemade ice cream business in the college town of Burlington, Vt. The New York natives didn't account for the extremely cold weather, though, and when no one came to buy their ice cream, they started packaging it and selling it wholesale, which Cohen now attributes to their success.
What most Ben & Jerry's patrons might not realize is that fighting for social change has always been an underlying goal for the brand and its founders.
"Even when I was still deeply involved at Ben & Jerry's, I was trying to use the power of business for progressive social change to try to help create a society that does a much better job of taking care of human needs," Cohen said.
The ice cream company donates 7.5 percent of its pretax profits, compared to the national corporate average of 1.5 percent. It also stopped the use of rGBH in its products, a genetically engineered hormone given to cows to boost milk production; made efforts to switch to biodegradable packaging; and is currently nearing its goal to stock only 100 percent GMO-free ice cream.
Election reform is Cohen's personal goal, and for the past two years he's been doing it through Stamp Stampede's "monetary jiu jitsu."
It's a relatively simple concept: Anyone can purchase a Stamp Stampede stamp online and start "decorating" their dollar bills. And it's completely legal, Cohen said, since it is not a commercial advertisement and does not destroy or deface the bill to a point where it is unrecognizable and must be taken out of circulation.
"It's a really powerful way of communicating and spreading a message. . . . Putting a message on money spreads virally," Cohen said.
"Every bill someone stamps reaches 875 people over two and a half years, so if one person stamps three bills every day for a year, he'll reach 1 million people."
So far, the nonprofit has sold between 15,000 and 20,000 stamps, Cohen said.
Cohen spoke to Maui residents at an anti-GMO rally hosted by the SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina) Movement on Monday. The group turned in more than 9,500 signatures in support of a moratorium that would ban GMOs until biotech corporations can prove they are safe.
"GMO groups understand how money influences politics. Our legislators get a lot of money from Monsanto," Voter Owned Hawaii Executive Director Kory Payne said. "People all over the state are beginning to understand what it means to take back control of our farms and our economy, HB 1481 would also help us take back control of our elections."
Payne has been trying to get a citizen-funded elections bill passed for years now, and last session the measure passed through both the House and Senate but died "at the last minute" in conference committee.
According to online records of legislation at the Capitol, lawmakers have taken no action on the bill this year, other than for House conference committee members to be discharged of the bill on Feb. 18.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.