I recognise Jerry Greenfield, better known as the Jerry half of Ben & Jerry's ice cream company, as soon as I meet him, although I can't recall ever seeing him before. Casually dressed in a polo shirt and combat trousers (already sporting a telltale ice cream stain even though it's only 10am), with his grey beard, wicked smile and glasses he looks every bit the social campaigning, eco-warrior ice cream entrepreneur.

Then he reminds me that if I had bought his ice cream I would have seen a black and white picture of him and business partner Ben Cohen on the pack - albeit one that looks as if it were taken in the seventies. That picture is shrinking, he tells me, as the ice cream company becomes more about its ethical standpoint than about the whims of two school friends who put their names to it back in 1978.

The picture may be getting smaller, but Greenfield's profile is certainly not shrinking with it. This is a man whose name and face hold a lot of currency and he is happy to capitalise on his celebrity status. When I meet him he is busy promoting the company's, and Europe's, first Fairtrade ice cream and the day after he is due to speak on the importance of fair trade at the company's outdoor ice cream festival, Ben & Jerry's Sundae, in London before jetting back to the US for more environment talks.

This is typical of Greenfield these days. "The things I end up doing are getting involved with projects that I think help further the social and environmental issues of the company," he says. "So, when Ben & Jerry's has a programme to help address global warming, I get involved."

Greenfield's approach is no more evident than in the company's work in the US, where it has established links with a bakery that employs economically disadvantaged staff for the production of its chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. It also produces a Rainforest Crunch ice cream, which is designed to help the rainforest become as profitable when harvested sustainably as when it is burnt down and turned into cattle ranches.

The Fairtrade ice cream and the promise of forthcoming organic launches in the UK are just the latest indications of how far Greenfield's influence is spreading. Put all this social and environmental campaigning aside, however, and he appears cold about the ice cream side of the business that bears his name.

"Anything involved in selling ice cream I don't do - I have no interest," he says. "I have no idea what ice cream sales are at Ben & Jerry's, I really don't. Ben and I have no involvement in the management or the operations of the company, so if you like what's going on you don't get to thank me and if you don't like what's going on you don't get to blame me.

"The photos of us on the container are small and I'm actually not very visible unless there is a social or environmental campaign that comes along," he says.

This may not sound like a man that has dedicated nearly 30 years of his life to selling the stuff, but it reflects a change in priority for Greenfield since Unilever's takeover of Ben & Jerry's in 2000.

He has made no secret about how he didn't want the company to pass into the hands of a bigger player, which he describes as "a personally horrible experience", although he does admit that the deal did help with the increasing problem the company was having with distributing its product in the US.

"Selling to Unilever was nothing that we wanted to do and we tried very hard to find alternatives. If we hadn't been a public company and hadn't had shareholders, we wouldn't have sold. From a strategic point of view, you want to hook up with a company when things aren't going right, but from a marketing and consumer perspective things were going well. Ben & Jerry's would have been fine."

He is also pessimistic about what effect Ben & Jerry's has had on making its parent company a more ethical business.

"Unilever essentially wanted Ben & Jerry's because it fitted well into its ice cream portfolio. At the same time, it wanted the ethics that the company had and said there was an opportunity to help spread them. It was a wonderful thing to say - maybe it will happen, maybe it won't, but it's not something that I'm counting on.

"It is a multibillion-dollar company - you can talk about the tail wagging the dog, but it's not even the tail -it's like a couple of hairs on the end of the tail. To think that would be wagging the dog is a little unrealistic."

That said, under the stewardship of Unilever, Ben & Jerry's has enjoyed great success. And, after a quiet first few years as part of the Anglo-Dutch giant, the company has been allowed to restart its campaigning, something that Greenfield says would not have been permitted in the early days of the deal. It is at present addressing the US's federal spending priorities to maintain its nuclear weapons arsenal, an issue that is evidently close to Greenfield's heart.

"We are questioning the sanity of a country that has 10,000 nuclear bombs," he says, with a mischievous grin spreading across his face.

"What are you going to need five for? When you drop the next nuclear bomb, do you really need 9,999 more? It's an absurdity. At the same time, it is the richest country in the world ,where 20% of the kids live in poverty. For Ben & Jerry's to be taking that on is great."

The company has not lost any of its trademark humour. It recently launched a flavour called ­Vermonty Python in the US, a nod to where the company was founded all those years ago, and has a 'flavour graveyard' on its website that lists the more adventurous ice cream flavours that never quite took off.

Having this point of difference is what drives Greenfield. And while he may have taken a back seat in the day-to-day running of the business, he is not ready to hang up his ice cream scoop, or indeed his 'save the trees' placard quite yet.

"The company has a heritage of trying to integrate social and environmental concerns into day-to-day business. If it was not doing what it currently does, it would shrivel up and die.

"The ice cream is great, the flavours are great, but there are a lot of great ice creams and flavours out there. However, companies come and go.

"If you'd talked to me three years ago I would have said the challenge would have been to get back to our values. The company has done that now and the challenge for the future is to get to the next level." n


If you could do it all again, what changes would you make?

I would have tried to grow more slowly. When you grow really quickly you end up having to bring new people into the company from outside as opposed to being able to grow people within the company yourself. These people don't necessarily share the company's history or values. You want managers to be aligned with your values and if people don't share them they see it as something that makes their job harder. We grew very quickly and ended up bringing in a lot of new managers, some of whom shared the company values and some of whom didn't.

What's your typical day?

I have no typical day. Ben and I have an office in Burlington that is separate from the administrative office. We got kicked out of the main office about ten years ago because they didn't feel like we were constructive - I call it founders' syndrome. When I'm not travelling I'll show up to work, after lunch usually, check my e-mails and then have a lot of meetings. I'm going on a trip soon with my wife and son looking for colleges for him. I kind of patch a life together. I keep very busy.

What's your favourite ice cream flavour?

Heath Bar Crunch (it is being relaunched in the UK as Vanilla Toffee Crunch later this month). Phish Food is also good, but it is too much. The great thing about it is the band Phish that it is named after was actually very involved in the flavour. They took a very active role.

If you weren't selling ice cream, what would you do?

I'm doing more non-profit stuff now and I think that's what I'd be doing if I wasn't in ice cream. I'm on a couple of boards, and I'm the president of the Ben & Jerry's Foundation.