It has turned out to be a remarkable battle between the food conglomerate Unilever (149,000 employees, 51 billion euros in turnover) and its activist subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s. Topic of the quarrel: the sale of ice cream in Israel.
On Monday, Ben & Jerry’s issued a statement that it will stop selling ice cream in occupied Palestinian territory. Staying there would be “not consistent” with “the values” of the company, which has been very outspoken on social and environmental issues for decades.
So far no problem – apart from the very indignant, but predictable reactions from Israel. The problem is further down in the statement, where the ice maker writes that it will remain active in the rest of Israel – and this is what the conflict with Unilever is all about.
Also read: Israel angry over Ben & Jerry’s ice cream boycott: ‘shameful capitulation’ to anti-Semitism
To NBC News, the board of directors of Ben & Jerry’s know that they actually wanted to send out a completely different statement. One that does not explicitly state that Ben & Jerry’s will remain in Israel. The suggestion: Unilever has fallen for it. And in the case of Ben & Jerry’s, that is extremely sensitive. At the time of the acquisition by Unilever in 2000, it was carefully laid down in a special agreement that the American ice cream company can continue to operate autonomously. This is partly due to the establishment of that board of directors.
It is therefore crystal clear for the chairman of this board. To NBC News: „She [Unilever] trying to destroy the soul of the company.”
On Thursday afternoon, Unilever CEO Alan Jope responded to the accusation for the first time, in an explanation of the half-year figures. He did not want to say much about it, but it is clear that Jope has a different reading. “We recognize the importance of that agreement,” he said. And later: “We just respect the agreement that we signed 20 years ago.”
Jope also denies that it was Unilever that determined what Ben & Jerry’s should do in Israel. “The overall decision has been made by Ben & Jerry’s and the board of directors.” It is not clear what he means by ‘the general decision’.
Jope did emphasize once again that Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s will really stay in Israel. “The important point, which is a bit lost, is how committed Unilever remains to its business in Israel – including Ben & Jerry’s. Except in the West Bank.”
Ben & Jerry’s board chairman Anuradha Mittal did not immediately respond to a request from verzoek NRC to comment.
For Unilever, the issue presents a complicated split. The group is all for brands with a purpose. That means as much as: brands with a purpose other than making money, brands that dare to speak out. Dove (care products) wants to celebrate ‘real’ women’s bodies. Hellmann’s (mayonnaise) is concerned about food waste.
Ben & Jerry’s is a frontrunner in this area. It had a purpose long before this buzzword was invented. You have to cherish such a strong identity. But for a large multinational such as Unilever with many brands, there are also limits. Speaking out, yes. But creating real enemies? That is not the intention anymore.
Unilever has a strong interest in continuing to do business in Israel. It has four factories, Jope said this afternoon, and 2,000 employees. At the same time, it is also not the intention to alienate Ben & Jerry’s from itself.