Ben & Jerry’s withdraws sales to Israeli settlements but clashes with parent company Unilever

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Ben & Jerry’s board has clashed with its parent company, Unilever, over handling the withdrawal of its products from Israeli settlements.

Ben & Jerry’s issued a statement on Monday announcing that it would stop selling its ice cream in the occupied territories.

“We believe that it is incompatible with our values ​​that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is sold in the occupied Palestinian territory,” the statement said.

The withdrawal of the product requires the end of a licensing agreement with a local franchisee who has distributed Ben & Jerry’s in Israel since 1987. Through the franchise, the company has a manufacturing plant and two scoop shops south of Tel Aviv. However, the company’s ice cream is also sold in grocery stores in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the UN Security Council says constitutes a “flagrant violation of international law.”

The license agreement expires in December 2022 and Unilever will not renew it, the company said.

“Although Ben & Jerry’s is no longer sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, we will remain in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we are ready.”

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at an event where founders Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen donated ice cream to draw attention to police reform at the Washington Supreme Court on May 20.File Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Tensions rise between Unilever and the board

Ben & Jerry’s board of directors has been pushing to withdraw ice cream sales from the occupied territories for years, said board chair Anuradha Mittal. However, he wanted to issue a different statement, reviewed by NBC News, which made no reference to continued sales in Israel – a move that Mittal said would require board approval – and underscored the commitment of the company in favor of social justice.

Unilever released the statement against the will of the board of directors and in violation of a legal agreement reached when it bought Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, Mittal said.

“I am saddened by the deception,” Mittal said. “This is not about Israel. This is about the breach of the acquisition agreement that kept the soul of the company alive. I can’t help but think that is it. that happens when you have a board with all the women and people of color who have been pushing to do the right thing. “

When Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s in 2000, the companies entered into an unusual acquisition agreement that legally vested an independent board of directors with oversight of the social mission, brand integrity and policies of the company. ice cream company. This means that the board must approve any changes to the product, license agreements, new markets and social mission statements.

“This is a surprisingly unique acquisition deal and truly ties the hands of the CEO and Unilever,” Mittal said. “It was designed so that a progressive company can ensure its independence and protect its values ​​when acquired by a large company.

While it is possible for Ben & Jerry’s to remain in Israel through a different arrangement, Ben & Jerry’s board is expected to vote to approve the arrangement, which it has yet to do, said. Mittal.

The board said in a separate statement: “The statement issued by Ben & Jerry’s regarding its operations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) does not reflect the position of the independent board and does not been approved by the independent board of directors. taking a stand and issuing a statement without the approval of the independent board of directors on an issue directly related to the social mission and integrity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand, Unilever and its CEO at Ben & Jerry’s violate the spirit and the letter of the acquisition agreement. “

Referring to Unilever’s attempt to override the board’s decision, Mittal said: “They are trying to destroy the soul of the company. We want this company to be driven by values, not driven by mother Society.”

Unilever did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations. He stressed in a separate statement on Monday that he remained “fully committed to our presence in Israel, where we have invested in our people, our brands and our business for several decades.”

“We have always recognized the right of the brand and its independent board of directors to make decisions regarding its social mission. We also welcome the fact that Ben & Jerry’s will remain in Israel, ”the statement said.

Mittal said: “It’s amazing they can say that when the statement was released without board approval.”

Advocacy groups pushed Ben & Jerry’s

Ben & Jerry’s faced a 10-year campaign by Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, a Palestinian rights group. The group argues that the sale of Ben & Jerry’s products in the occupied territories is at odds with the company’s stated progressive values ​​and its social mission to “eliminate injustices in our local, national and international communities by integrating these concerns. in our daily business activities. “

“By doing business in Israel and in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, it violates its own social mission and engages in unethical practices,” the organization says on its website.

Mittal said the board passed a resolution to end sales of Ben & Jerry’s products in Israeli settlements last July, but the company’s CEO Matthew McCarthy, whom Unilever appointed in 2018 , “had never operationalized it”.

NBC News did not independently review the resolution.

The international nonprofit Human Rights Watch has claimed for years that companies operating in the settlements are complicit in human rights abuses.

“Our recommendation for companies is to assess their operations and understand how they can benefit and contribute to human rights violations in the settlements,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch.

Pressure on Ben & Jerry’s intensified in May as violence escalated between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. Since then, the company has remained silent on social media in the face of criticism from pro-Palestinian activists. Before May 18, the company posted almost daily on its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

In late June, the nonprofit rights group SumOfUs stepped up the pressure with an online petition calling on Ben & Jerry’s to “stop supporting apartheid in Palestine.”

“Ben & Jerry’s has been one of the most progressive companies in the world since its inception, but it continues to sell and operate on stolen Palestinian land,” says the petition, which has collected more than 35,000 signatures after its launch. Thursday.

Mittal said that throughout this period, the board of directors has been pushing to issue a statement committing to remove Ben & Jerry’s products from Israeli settlements, but that senior Unilever executives have been heavily involved in because of the political sensitivity of the decision.

The company has taken progressive positions on other issues

Ben & Jerry’s are used to making strong statements in favor of racial and social justice.

“One of the questions I get most often is, aren’t you afraid to alienate consumers from your positions at Ben & Jerry’s? McCarthy, the CEO, told the Wall Street Journal in early May. “It’s exactly the opposite.”

In 2016, the company expressed its support for Black Lives Matter in a blog post which said that “to remain silent about violence and threats to the lives and well-being of black people is to be complicit in that violence.” and these threats ”. The post, which explicitly mentioned the police shooting of a man in Charlotte, North Carolina, sparked a backlash with some people threatening to boycott the brand. Since then, the company has made strong statements about refugee rights, how the criminal justice system failed transgender Americans and, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, dismantling white supremacy.

Other companies under pressure to do business in the occupied territories include the bakery company Pillsbury. In April, Charlie Pillsbury, whose ancestor Charles A. Pillsbury founded the company, wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune calling for a boycott of the brand, now owned by General Mills, to have a factory in a industrial zone of occupied East Jerusalem.

“As long as General Mills continues to profit from the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinian people, we will not buy any Pillsbury products,” he wrote, calling on others to join the boycott.

General Mills spokesman Kelsey Roemhildt said the company has “a long-standing commitment to protecting human rights throughout our supply chain”.

“We provide full benefits to every employee without prejudice to race, religion or nationality. Almost half of the employees at our supplier’s factory are Palestinians, and many have been employed for several years, working alongside Israeli colleagues and reporting continued satisfaction, ”Roemhildt mentioned.

In 2018, Human Rights Watch led a campaign to stop Airbnb, Booking.com, and other rental property companies from listing locations in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“Airbnb has never boycotted Israel, Israeli companies or the more than 20,000 Israeli hosts active on the Airbnb platform,” Airbnb said in a statement at the time. “We have always strived to bring people together and will continue to work with our community to achieve this goal. “

Airbnb withdrew the ads but then overturned the decision after it was served with a lawsuit in a San Francisco court that argued it discriminated against Jews.

“A lot of companies are sailing with respect for trade and human rights standards and balancing that with worry about backlash on the other side,” Shakir said. “We think they should treat Israel-Palestine the same way they treat human rights violations elsewhere rather than having a special rule because that could get you in trouble.”


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