Corporate social responsibility sounds easy when you're saving the rain forest. It gets more complicated when you're coming up with a maternity-leave policy or deciding about a dress code

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield recently gave a lecture to a group of college students in my hometown about socially responsible business. Since I run an ice-cream company and support their stated goals of making business a more socially responsible institution, I was thrilled to be invited to introduce the two founders. During the follow-up question-and-answer session, a woman asked Ben Cohen whom he and Greenfield looked up to as role models. He failed to provide any examples, a response that only increased a growing unease I have had about Cohen and Greenfield as role models themselves.

I identify with their struggle for purpose in business. Long ago I was on a path to pursue medical school or academia, either of which could be deemed a noble pursuit. Instead I was waylaid by the lure of the ice-cream business. In 1984 I founded Amy's Ice Cream, in Austin, Tex., and since then I've grown it into a 10-store, $2.2-million business. Yet despite the excitement of creating a successful enterprise, I have often found myself struggling to find a purpose. For most people, business is the pursuit of the dollar, which holds no value in and of itself for me. But I've discovered, like Cohen and Greenfield, that business can be an effective vehicle for making the contributions that I think are more worthy.

For me, however, those contributions have far more to do with day-to-day business choices than with the global issues Cohen and Greenfield talk about. In that sense I prefer to use as a benchmark companies that are making quiet though fundamental progress in corporate social responsibility, which, despite some blurring of the lines, is not identical to corporate philanthropy. Take Motorola, for instance, which has committed more than $35 million to training its employees not only in sophisticated high-tech skills but also in the most basic reading and writing skills.

When Ben Cohen criticizes big business or implies that his company is among a select few in its altruism, I can't help losing trust. Take the way Ben & Jerry's frames the issue of corporate giving. The company promotes the fact that it donates 7.5% of pretax profits, compared with an average of 1% for other publicly held corporations. Yet Patagonia donates 10% of its pretax profits to charitable causes. Does that make it one-third better than Ben & Jerry's? More important, why not address all the issues that underlie the decision of where to give? Should the corporation donate 7.5% of pretax profits to charitable organizations of its choosing, or should it do a better job of distributing that profit to shareholders and employees, allowing them to donate to charitable organizations of their choice?

Ben & Jerry's has an original business solution to that question. It can be found in the company's 1993 10K form, which reports that its "marketing emphasis has shifted from portraying itself as the small 'underdog' firm to a companywide focus on community involvement and its status as a socially responsible business." By merging the company's marketing program with charitable causes and the support of social issues, not only have Cohen and Greenfield contributed to their community, but they have also, by virtue of their success, raised their shareholders' return. That is not simply a case of good guys and bad guys. It is a creative solution to a legitimate business issue.

I'm trying to take such an approach. Several years ago I had a run-in with Ben & Jerry's when I tried to launch a retail pint business in Texas. The crucial factor to a successful wholesale ice-cream business is access to a quality distributor. I could not obtain distribution access because Ben & Jerry's discouraged distributors from carrying competitive products. Ironically, Ben & Jerry's had faced the same problem 10 years ago as a small growing company. Then Pillsbury pressured distributors to stock only its HÄagen-Dazs brand. Ben & Jerry's responded with a tongue-in-cheek campaign asking, "What's the Doughboy afraid of?" which positioned Cohen and Greenfield as radical upstarts. Faced with a similar problem, I mimicked their campaign by asking publicly, "What are the cookie-dough boys afraid of?" Yet, ultimately I could neither gain distribution access nor get the retail business to take off. So I pulled the plug.

I don't blame Ben & Jerry's for the failure of that experiment, nor do I object to what Cohen and Greenfield did. One could make the case that a socially responsible business would promote free competition between small and large companies in the marketplace, allowing greater selection and quality for the customer. But I believe that as a publicly held company in a competitive market with fiscal responsibilities to its group of stakeholders, it chose the best possible course for its constituencies. I'm simply suggesting that Ben & Jerry's has some distance to go in reconciling its rhetoric with its actions.

Moreover, the cause of corporate social responsibility is ill-served by the company's lack of humility and suggestion that all business but its own is bad. In Austin, Cohen preached that corporations should be nice and that they should provide meaningful employment for the unemployed. He also said that our nation should spend less money killing people and more money clothing, feeding, and housing people, and that we should protect the environment. At that level, Cohen's talk is political rhetoric. It's easy to talk about moral issues like defense spending and deforestation of the rain forest in black-and-white terms. It is hard to think that way when you're growing a company and working on the fundamental struggle to satisfy all the stakeholders in a business. How do you care for the employees, provide a return for your stakeholders, and provide for the long-term health of the company? What does that mean in terms of hourly pay issues, health care, day care, and attracting and hiring experienced personnel versus hiring managers from within?

Those are the social issues I struggle with today. I think about social responsibility when I worry about whether asking employees to dress in a certain way violates their rights to free expression. (Nose rings and tattoos are OK; lip rings are not.) We are a labor-intensive company that must balance every raise or benefit against the threat it poses to our health as a company. Even accommodating the new demands of employees who become parents is an issue that must be weighed against what is fair to everyone in the business. None of these issues are easy.

Business can set an example. And not just in the way Ben & Jerry's goes about it. To expand on that, however, I would look to something Cohen recently wrote in response to public criticism: "The issues of social justice and commerce are complex. This does not mean we should not keep trying. Those who cynically slash any effort in this direction do a disservice to more than their targets. They contribute to the erosion of the public's hope that together we can make the world a better place." It's time for leaders like him to listen to their own words. If people understand the struggles businesses face and recognize the many forms of social contribution they do make, they are more likely to reward them for positive action. None of us are starting from ground zero in our attempts to align the good of the company with the good of the community. We should all keep in mind the Social Venture Network motto: "The distance between our rhetoric and our actions is the field in which we labor."

* * *

Amy Miller is CEO of Amy's Ice Cream, in Austin, Tex.