“Woke corporate ideologues”: Florida joins investors threatening to axe Unilever over exit from Occupied Palestinian Territory

US reaction to Ben & Jerry’s decision contrasts with pension funds in Europe and New Zealand

Unilever is facing a slew of divestment threats from US states over a decision by its subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling ice cream in Palestine’s occupied territory. 

In a speech yesterday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis became the latest figure to threaten to cut ties with the consumer goods giant, which has become a poster child for corporate responsibility over recent years for its progressive approach to climate change and corporate purpose. 

Ben & Jerry’s announced last month that it will end sales of ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory once its license agreement expires at the end of 2022. 

“As a matter of law and principle, the State of Florida will not tolerate discrimination against the State of Israel or the Israeli people,” said DeSantis in response. “I will not stand idly by as woke corporate ideologues seek to boycott and divest from our ally.”

“Unilever has a strong and longstanding commitment to our business in Israel. Ben & Jerry’s has also made it clear that although the brand will not be present in the West Bank from 2023, it will remain in Israel through a different business arrangement”

Ash Williams, the Executive Director & Chief Investment Officer of the Florida State Board of Administration, confirmed this week that Unilever has been added to the state’s List of Scrutinized Companies that Boycott Israel, and will be excluded from its investment universe if Ben & Jerry’s does not revoke its decision within 90 days. The state will also cease to do business with Unilever or its subsidiaries.  

A spokesperson for Unilever told RI: “Unilever has a strong and longstanding commitment to our business in Israel. Ben & Jerry’s has also made it clear that although the brand will not be present in the West Bank from 2023, it will remain in Israel through a different business arrangement. We have welcomed this decision to stay in Israel emphatically, and have been seeking to handle this matter in as respectful and sensitive a way as possible.”

She added that the firm has never expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment & Sanction (BDS) movement – a Palestinian-led initiative that encourages financial sanctions against Israel. 

More than 30 US state rules have been created to discourage boycotts of Israel.  

New York State Common Retirement Fund’s head of corporate governance, Liz Gordon, told Unilever last week that State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli “is troubled and concerned about reports suggesting that Ben & Jerry’s…is involved in BDS activities.”

“If the company fails to respond or fails to demonstrate that it has not engaged in BDS activities, the Fund’s investment in Unilever will be subject to a detailed review and staff recommendation, which may include investment restrictions, in accordance with the Fund’s BDS Policy,” she warned.

Just a day earlier, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Glenn Hegar, announced he had directed his staff to determine whether Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever had done anything to warrant its inclusion on a blacklist for companies boycotting Israel.

“I would also note that Texans have better options for a sweet treat this summer. Blue Bell was founded in Brenham, Texas, and, for my money, tastes much better than the stuck-up stuff made by a foreign-owned company started in Vermont,” Hegar wrote.

The Israeli Boycott Restrictions Committee for Illinois’ Investment Policy Board has also said it will meet to approve setting a 90-day deadline for Unilever to reverse the decision by Ben & Jerry’s. 

Committee chair Andy Lappin told AP News that if the two companies are found to be non-compliant with state law, which prohibits investment in companies that boycott Israel, Unilever and its subsidiaries will be divested.  

Other companies on the state’s exclusion list over Israel include Nordea Bank, Adidas, ASN Bank and Macquarie Group. 

Unilever is regularly voted one of the top companies sustainability issues. Last year, it launched a new 10-year plan committing it to Net Zero by 2039, and promising a deforestation-free supply chain by the end of 2023. 

Fidelity International, one of Unilever’s shareholders, told RI: “Unilever is a company which, in our view, has made sustainability core to its overall corporate strategy. This is reflected in challenging targets across a number of environmental and social areas. We have engaged with the company to discuss the complexities of the issue including Ben & Jerry’s independent board, and will monitor the situation.”

Outside the US, pension funds have made a number of moves to divest companies that operate in Occupied Palestinian Territory. In May, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global dropped two companies for their involvement in the region, and New Zealand’s sovereign wealth fund, NZ Super, pulled its money from five Israeli banks in April for their activities in occupied territories.