The Difference Between Ice Cream for Israel’s Settlers and the World’s Mayonnaise

Unilever is under fire from investor Terry Smith for being politically correct at the expense of profits. He’s half right

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A man buys Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Jerusalem on July 20, 2021. - American ice cream-maker Ben & Jerry's announced on July 19, 2021 they would stop selling their ice cream in the occupied Palestinian territories, saying its sale "is inconsistent with our values." In a statement, the Unilever subsidiary said they "hear and recognise the concerns shared with us by our fans and trusted partners," without elaborating
Man picking a tub of Ben & Jerry's in Jerusalem, July 2021Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Remember Ben & Jerry’s decision last summer to boycott the settlements?

Probably, though unless you’re deeply involved with the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement or, alternatively, a true believer in the Greater Land of Israel and the settlement enterprise, it’s a headline from the distant past.

One way to check how much the public really cares one way or the other is to see how many consumers are either boycotting Ben & Jerry’s over its decision, or are buying it in support.

In that regard, BDS supporters can happily point to the fact that in an otherwise dismal year for the ice cream business, Ben & Jerry’s sales in the United States actually rose 6 percent in dollar terms in the year to November 1.

On the other hand, U.S. sales of Haagen-Dazs – which is not boycotting the settlements and is the preferred alternative brand for anti-BDSers – saw its sales climb an even sharper 7.1 percent in that time.

Perhaps there was a tectonic shift in the American ice cream market as tens of millions of determined BDSers and their opponents shifted brand loyalty. Friends of the settlers snapped up tubs of Haagen-Dazs while BDS supporters did the same for Ben & Jerry’s, reducing the sales of the other top 10 ice cream makers.

If you think that happened, then invite you to return to planet Earth and learn something about the behavior of its inhabitants, including the fact that the great majority aren’t thinking about Israel’s settlements, much less have a clear opinion how they feel about them.

The heat rises

Which is not to say that Ben & Jerry’s – or more precisely its parent company, Unilever – isn’t feeling the heat. It’s not coming from consumers but from the stock market. One U.S. state after another has divested its Unilever stock on the grounds that Ben & Jerry’s action puts the company in violation of their anti-boycott laws. Illinois is the latest of them, following New Jersey, New York, Arizona, and Florida, which sold amounts equal to hundreds of millions of dollars in shares. Unilever is also under pressure on a national level from Congressional Republicans for possible securities violations.

To add to its misery, this week Unilever came under fire from Terry Smith, whose $55 billion Fundsmith Equity is one of the company’s 10 biggest shareholders. Smith lit into management for its “ludicrous” obsession with sustainability and social issues at the expense of financial performance. His critique has hit a nerve, setting off a wave of commentary, mostly backing Smith.

Smith’s headline kvetch was about how Unilever is marketing its Hellman’s mayonnaise as somehow good for the planet, as against just being simply good mixed with tuna fish. “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” Smith said.

While it got less attention, Smith also pointed to Ben & Jerry’s settlement boycott as the “most obvious manifestation” of the company’s failure to focus on its business while it engages in politically correct branding.

In doing so, Smith was treating as one all the elements of the growing trend of socially responsible corporate activity, which goes under the rubric of environmental, social and governance, or ESG. But there’s a big difference between mayonnaise for the world and ice cream for settlers.

Assuming that Unilever’s claims about what it's doing to assure environmental sustainability when it manufactures Hellman’s are, in fact, true, they have a real and direct impact on the world. No, it’s not going to save the planet single-handedly, but if we’re going to save it, much of the work will be done through companies like Unilever or billions of ordinary people doing small things.

Yet the fact that Unilever advertises not only the culinary qualities but its environmental sustainability claims may not even be useful for the company, from the business point of view.

On the positive side, its message is that even big, faceless corporations care about the environment, and that speaks to a lot of customers. Against that, it’s a waste of time and money vis-à-vis the many customers who would buy the mayonnaise even if it was a mix from bioengineered beans and polyvinyl. Worse still, there are sure to be Trump types who find the sustainability bragging repulsive. In the end, it’s up to Unilever’s marketing people to figure out what the company stands to win or lose.

Ben & Jerry’s refusal to continue selling its ice cream in the settlements is the exact opposite of sustainable mayonnaise. Whether it was done sincerely or not (and there is no reason to suspect it was not, given the company’s history of do-gooding), it’s a marketing move, period.

When the last of Chunky Monkey and Salted Caramel Core pints have disappeared from the supermarket shelves in Maale Adumim and Shavei Shomron, the settlers will still be there. Not a single one is going to move to Tel Aviv so he can keep buying his favorite ice cream; Naftali Bennett won’t be placing an urgent call to Mahmoud Abbas to get peace talks started.

About the only thing you can say is that Ben & Jerry’s is no longer helping to “normalize” the occupation. But the extent to which it’s contributing to that is almost zero. In other words, the boycott boils down to grandstanding – and alas, grandstanding to a tiny audience of BDSers. Compared to any controversy around Unilever’s marketing Hellman’s environmental credential, it’s lousy marketing that alienates as many people as it pleases.

That’s where Smith has a good point. He’s wrong to say companies shouldn’t be trying to act responsibly when they can make a difference; he is right when he says they shouldn’t get involved in politics, especially controversial politics, in which they are indeed sacrificing sales and profits for the sake of a symbolic gesture. The world has no shortage of problems, which aren’t going to be addressed that way. It also has no shortage of controversies, in which CEOs need not ensnare their companies just for the sake of image.

Unilever would no doubt like to backtrack out the Ben & Jerry’s boycott before the one-year deadline arrives. It’s been a headache, with little positive to show for it.

No doubt in progressive circles and in some of the media, the company will pay a price for reversing course: The people who cheered it on for its decision will now condemn it for cowardice. But we know from Airbnb, which did a similar about-face, that after a brief media flap it will be back to business as usual. Even symbols have a shelf-life.

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