Corporate activism is too often cynical. In Ben & Jerry’s case, it offers hope

Nesrine Malik

The Guardian  /  July 25, 2021

The company’s stand against illegal Israeli settlements is a small but welcome contribution to an ongoing shift in opinion.

There is possibly only one thing worse for social justice movements than getting no recognition, and that is getting too much. Over the past few years, the subversive energy of popular movements for equality, whether #MeToo or Black Lives Matter, has regularly been appropriated by corporations.

Big businesses tend to have a good nose for trends that could affect their bottom lines, and so move early to show support for whatever fashionable cause has broken through. There is little actual activism going on here. These solidarity shout-outs are a safe, low-cost way both to get ahead of any internal issues that might end up being exposed, and to win over the sorts of customers who make political change part of their consumer habits. But the appearance of change, rather than any seismic shift, is what these corporates seem to prefer. The year since the Black Lives Matter protests has exposed the gap between internal practices and pledges of support for racial equality in many companies, with employees coming out to protest against what they see as tokenistic gestures.

There are, however, times when it isn’t all a cynical exercise to forestall criticism or sell more units. Last week, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would no longer allow sales in Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. The company released a statement saying “we believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. You are welcome to roll your eyes at the incongruity of “ice-cream vendor” and high political activism. It would not be unreasonable to assume this was another example of social justice reputation laundering. But look again, and a different picture emerges.

Ben & Jerry’s is no newcomer to the progressive values game. It is a company that has always been forthright about its politics, with a long record of supporting political causes that include criminal justice reform, voter registration, campaign finance reform and climate justice. One of its most senior roles is that of “head of global activism strategy”.

Its campaigns aren’t those you would pick if you were in the business of scoring easy political points. Its stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land was certain to bring with it a strong backlash. The president of Israel called the move “a new kind of terrorism” that would have “serious consequences” for the company. He’s right about the consequences. By making this move, Ben & Jerry’s not only exposes itself to accusations of “terrorism”, but in the United States, it creates legal problems for itself. In 30 states, there are rules that prevent pension funds from investing in companies that will not do business with Israel. The comptroller of public accounts in Texas, who oversees billions of dollars in assets for Texas’s public pension funds, has moved to blacklist Ben & Jerry’s if the company is found to have violated the law. Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, has also promised to appeal to these states to trigger anti-BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) laws against the company.

If there is any benefit to Ben & Jerry’s commercially in the shape of more pro-Palestinian customers buying its products, it is probably outweighed by the harm to its reputation and its financial viability in the US and Israel. The boycott announcement has even triggered tension between Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever, which allows it a significant degree of autonomy.

And unlike the generic statements made by other companies, this action has an impact. By condemning the occupation and settlements, Ben & Jerry’s has emphasised their illegal nature. By backing the Palestinians, it underscores the fact that even though the international community has abandoned them and effectively normalised settlements, they are not in fact normal. While this may not change things on the ground, what it does is make it a little easier to back the Palestinian cause, which has precious little support among those who can influence the reality of the situation. It adds momentum to a growing global movement, one bolstered after the attacks on Gaza earlier this year, one that places the Palestinian cause alongside others that promote social and racial equality. It keeps the spotlight trained on settlements and gives others, perhaps more hesitant, an example to follow. Peaceful boycotts by non-political actors are not, by their nature, political solutions. Instead, they are about changing the moral calculus bit by bit, about building coalitions that stigmatise and isolate violators of international law, so that, one day, enough pressure builds to bring about that political solution. The international anti-apartheid movement first started as the boycott movement in 1959, and, a little over 30 years later, South African apartheid was formally abolished.

In many cases, scepticism about corporate activism, of its performative nature and limited impact, is justified. But sometimes that kind of activism is all we have. Boycotts aimed at deeply entrenched injustice are more likely to be successfully undertaken by businesses large enough to take the hit, and make the headlines. Ben & Jerry’s almost certainly conducted a rational cost-benefit analysis and found that such a move may harm the company, but not annihilate it. In an ideal world, we shouldn’t have to depend on private actors to stand up for the sort of human rights that western democracies claim to believe in. Ending that political hypocrisy is arguably an even more challenging task than dismantling Israeli settlements. With both off the menu for the foreseeable, Ben & Jerry’s is at least a start.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist