Despite the fact that Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever a while back, it has still engaged in some pioneering work — from encouraging customers to oppose GMOs to donating thousands each year to local charities, to buying brownies from a bakery that helps ex-cons get back on their feet by providing their first job outside jail. Most recently they’ve committed to sourcing all of their ingredients through Fair Trade programs by 2012 (considering the quantities of chocolate, vanilla, coffee nuts, and more, this is a pretty big deal to farmers in developing countries where this stuff is grown). All of these initiatives took time to implement, and their packaging story is even longer — it has been evolving over the past 20+ years. Read on for an in-depth look at the company’s packaging and production process – complete with an exclusive interview with Andrea Asch, Ben & Jerry’s manager of natural resources!

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This is the story of how the best of green intentions can go bad. Or if not bad, then at least not as well as had been hoped. Many consumers (and plenty of environmentalists) get frustrated by how slowly most companies respond to new developments; Why can’t we have biodegradable plastic bags everywhere, now? When are we going to have plugs for electric cars so they’re really easy to recharge? WHEN is somebody going to create delicious, edible packaging? (Unfortunately, this column is not about the latter, but it is about how quickly- and easily- change can happen inside a company.) But the (boring) truth is that even the most progressive companies can’t change overnight.

When I recently had the chance to spend the day up at Ben & Jerry’s headquarters near Burlington, Vermont, I had organized a raft of questions, one of my biggest centering around why the company had abandoned their unbleached cartons (which I thought were almost as important a visual statement about rejecting the American obsession with bleached whiteness as the actual reduction in chlorine effluent with such packaging is). As you can tell from the fact that I write this column, I’m totally fascinated with packaging and assume most companies don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about it as they should.

I spoke at length with Andrea Asch, the Manager of Natural Resources for Ben & Jerry’s, who has been with the company for over 20 years, so she really knows her stuff about how to keep ice cream, froyo and other frozen treats cold and fresh, including rules and regs I had no concept about (the FDA says you can’t package food in recycled containers, who knew?).

Andrea told the me the (very) long story about how the company had tried a number of packages, why they abandoned the brown eco pints, and where they were headed next. Her knowledge of the past and future of packaging at the company was totally fascinating to me; check out her (edited) tour of how tough it actually IS to package products responsibly.

Hear more from Andrea and how Ben and Jerry’s uses their waste ice cream to create energy here.

+ Ben & Jerry’s

packaging the future, green packaging, starre vartanStarre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (