It was good to see people protesting about the Ben & Jerry’s ban on selling its products in parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank outside Unilever’s AGM in London.
But given the impact the ban has had on Unilever’s share price and reputation, the anger should have been inside the meeting and directed at chief executive Alan Jope and his board.
Since the ban was announced last July, the share price has fallen by around 15%, wiping a significant chunk off the company’s value.
In the US, 34 US states have anti-BDS statutes on their books, seven of which have already divested, or plan to divest from Unilever as a result of their decision to cease sales in these disputed Territories.
Its reputation has been hit, too, with investors like Terry Smith attacking the company for having “clearly lost the plot”.
Unilever insist that Ben & Jerry’s is some sort of independent entity run by a couple of hippies from Vermont, but according to UK Lawyers for Israel, the company can exercise control over its subsidiary by requiring all employees to abide by the Unilever Code of Conduct. The CoC says, “Unilever companies and employees are required to comply with the laws and regulations of the countries in which we operate”. Bearing in mind that the US anti-BDS statutes and Israeli law judge Unilever’s actions to be problematic, if not illegal, there is a clear conflict here.
They can’t have it both ways, claiming that Ben & Jerry’s have some sort of autonomous status due to their merger agreement, without also compromising their corporate governance.
The great irony is that singling out Israel and banning sales in the West Bank is so counterproductive. After all, food should be a way of bringing people together, not driving them apart, which is what boycotting Israel or singling it out always does.
Would it not be much more effective to open a factory in the West Bank, support the Palestinian economy, provide jobs for people who live there and employ them and Israelis on the same terms and conditions? That would be a much more productive approach to the conflict and play a much more constructive role in building a two-state solution, which is what they claim to support.
Instead, Unilever is allowing Israel to be singled out. Its subsidiary companies trade all over the world, in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran without a peep of protest or murmur of complaint.
Unilever are even still selling some of its ice cream in Russia and investing $112m to expand an ice cream factory in China, whilst allowing Ben & Jerry’s to be pulled out of the West Bank!
As the protest showed, it’s high time for Unilever, its senior executives, its board and its shareholders to take responsibility.
The company’s hypocrisy and double standards leave a very bitter taste.