Down with ‘kooky capitalism’

Ben and Jerry's Summer Sundae was a fun day out, but did it have to come with a generous side order of green sanctimonious hectoring?

Neil Davenport

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Last weekend some friends suggested going to a music-festival, Summer Sundae, put on by the American ice-cream makers, Ben and Jerry, at Clapham Common in London.

With the weather still glorious, an afternoon drinking cold lager in the hot sun while taking in, say, Echo & the Bunnymen seemed quite appealing. In recent years, ‘micro-festivals’ have become a feature of London’s summer landscape. They’re popular with thirtysomethings because they can socialise with friends and look after their kids, too; all well and good.

But do we need to be sold, as we were on Saturday afternoon, such a cutesy, ethical lifestyle in the process? Ten years ago, Jarvis Cocker sang ‘is this the way the future’s meant to be?’ about outdoor raves. Ten years on, I was thinking the same about Ben and Jerry’s jamboree.

For starters, since when did ice-cream sellers, or for that matter a fruit drinks company such as Innocent, become involved in nominally ‘rock’n’roll’ events? Isn’t that supposed to be the job of flat and rubbish lager brands? On one level, of course, Summer Sundae and Innocent’s Fruitstock – which takes place this coming weekend – aren’t meant to impress the likes of Lemmy, Tommy Lee or Tommy Saxondale. On another level, though, they do play on hippie countercultural ‘vibes’ and thus make vague claims to some form of ‘radicalism’. But in today’s context, all that really means is not being McDonald’s.

As a shrewd and cynical marketing ploy, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield understand this all too well. That is why in America and Europe they are seen to actively push ethical concerns regarding the environment or the arms trade: it’s a way of saying, ‘hey, we’re the good guys’. What could be a better approach to business? So last Saturday, Mr Greenfield made a speech informing us that Ben and Jerry are doing their bit to tackle global warming. An exasperated friend of mine quickly retorted: ‘Why on Earth would an ice cream company be against warmer weather?’ Good point. But it is precisely such displays of ‘selflessness’ that are taken as good coin – both figuratively and literally. Which is why so many other ethical capitalists are getting in on the act, too.

During a stroll around Summer Sundae it was notable that every food and drink stall was organic, wholesome or ‘real’ (as if other food is somehow illusionary). What they all had in common was an earnest but transparent attempt to look like small-cottage industries rather than subsidiaries of multinational companies. In reality, Ben and Jerry’s was taken over by the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giants Unilever six years ago – hardly the type of company to make ice-cream in someone’s small kitchen.

In the Guardian, Jacques Peretti called this process ‘kooky capitalism’, wherein huge companies simply brand themselves as ‘ethical, people-orientated cottage businesses rather than faceless behemoths driven by profit’ (1). Peretti is right to note that this is often accompanied by faux-naive slogans and childlike scrawl over delivery vans and other company symbols. Even when ‘kooky capitalists’ don’t go as Innocent or Ocado, subtler brand designs still appear to be modelled on children’s alphabet books – all blaring primary colours and bold Arial fonts.

In the past, parental responsibility, rather than how much ale you could handle, was the true measure of adulthood. Today it seems that having children is an excuse to join them in the safety playpen, away from the bullyboys of greedy multinationals and the gormless masses. Summer Sundae, with its notably high fences and high security, appeared like a gated community for ethical Peter Pans. It’s not a one-off, either. A few years back, post-rave downtempo act Lemon Jelly (the name says it all) put on a matinee show for toddlers and their parents. Elsewhere, indie acts Saint Etienne and Belle & Sebastian will be releasing ‘children’s music’ albums in the near future. Once, when pop musicians approached 40, they would aspire to work with minimalist composers like Phillip Glass. Now it seems the bar is set by Jackie Trent’s theme tune to ‘Rupert the Bear’.

At Summer Sundae, the ethical and infantile collided in a queasy way. World Wildlife Fund volunteers, for instance, dressed up as pandas, held hands round the common and fundraised with all the pushy hustling skills of a two-day old kitten. Then again, given the inflated prices of the ‘real’ food and drink on offer, not many of the revelers appeared charitably inclined. For sure, the burgers were a cut above standard festival fare, but not that much better than, say, Burger King’s finest. So what, exactly, do you get for your cash at events like these? For ethical liberals it has two important selling points: a) it shows you’re a concerned, planet-saving citizen, and b) you can avoid paunchy blokes in Arsenal football tops.

Open-air summer events in London’s parks are often sanguine socialising events – bring on more of them, I say. But can we ditch the ethical instrumentalism, please? Attending a micro-music festival and enjoying flavoursome ice-cream is not about to change the world, and nor should we expect it to. After all, you’d have to be really Innocent to believe otherwise.

Fruitstock, The Innocent Festival, takes place at Regent’s Park, London, on 5 and 6 August, 2006.

(1) Kooky capitalism, Jacques Peretti, Guardian, 28 July 2006

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