Unilever’s sale of Ben & Jerry’s: A corporate cop out - opinion

Outsourcing Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s corporate and social responsibilities to a third party falls far short of standing proudly in support of Israel and its citizens.

Ben and Jerry's. (photo credit: MORAG BITON)
Ben and Jerry's.
(photo credit: MORAG BITON)

In response to Ben & Jerry’s boycott of selling their products in parts of Israel, its parent company, Unilever, has sold its interests to the Israeli distributor, American Quality Products (AQP), who’s again facilitating the sale of Ben & Jerry’s throughout the entire country. Unilever touts this as a public relations victory, meanwhile Ben & Jerry’s is now suing them for what’s really just a massive corporate cop out.

Unilever is headquartered in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where I proudly live and serve as mayor. I’ve been watching the situation unfold in my backyard ever since the boycott was announced, last July. In fact, I sent a letter to Unilever’s CEO Alan Jope urging them to take a stand against Ben & Jerry’s injustice, but all I was met with was a reply full of corporate drivel and no commitment to correcting their wayward subsidiary.

Ben & Jerry’s claimed that it couldn’t sell its products to a country responsible for human rights violations, implying an alignment with the heinous BDS movement (boycott, divest and sanction) that threatens the existence of Israel. Their boycott also ended a 34-year partnership with AQP, which now owns the rights to manufacture and distribute Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

Over the past year, Unilever has made statements saying they are totally against the BDS movement and that they were learning about the complexity of politics in Israel. Still, there’s been no repudiation of its subsidiary and its scandalous accusations.

Outsourcing Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s corporate and social responsibilities to a third party falls far short of standing proudly in support of Israel and its citizens. As I write, we are finally seeing public company boards start to realize that the latest flavor of social activism limits a business’ potential growth and shareholder value. In the case of Unilever, the proper support of a democratic Israel would have been to restructure Ben & Jerry’s board and not its business in Israel.

 Mario M. Kranjac (credit: Courtesy) Mario M. Kranjac (credit: Courtesy)

What makes this even more problematic is that they’ve been silent on their subsidiary’s Israel boycott while still selling their own products in China, where human rights violations against religious minorities and pro-democracy protestors are rampant. To this day, that hasn’t changed, yet they pulled their products from shelves in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

This blatant hypocrisy of picking and choosing at the expense of others should be questioned by all their customers. While we greatly appreciate the jobs they bring here to Englewood Cliffs, we also expect better from all members of our business community. We expect that the rule of law be applied consistently and that no group is discriminated against.

Shameless corporate greed

When they had a chance to stand with Israel, they said they would rather let someone else do it. Meanwhile, they’ll gladly profit off the sale of their interests in Ben and Jerry’s and their customers in Israel. I call that shameless corporate greed.

While the details of the sale are undisclosed, it’s very possible that a royalty agreement was made in addition to the profit of the sale. This means Unilever may continue to make money off Jews living in the West Bank without investing themselves in these communities.

They could very well win in Ben & Jerry’s lawsuit against them and continue on with business as usual. That means no one should be surprised if they find Unilever backing down in the face of opposition. And as a large multinational corporation, my fear is that their business decisions towards the people of Israel will have to be questioned again, but as far as I’m concerned, their true colors have been shown.

While ice cream has historically made people happy, who will the Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors target next?  Will it be an ethnic group? A religious group? A political group? It’s time for Unilever to take charge of its wayward subsidiary and not outsource its parental responsibilities. The culture of canceling people and groups must not be tolerated, proliferated or accommodated.

The writer was elected mayor of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, in 2016. He is the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe and a New Jersey native. He continues his profession as a corporate attorney and venture capitalist.