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Popular ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s is embroiled in an icy spat with its parent company Unilever over the mishandling of an announcement that it would withdraw sales from Palestine.

The purpose-led brand makes a virtue of its social mission ‘to make the world a better place’, vowing to cease the sale of its products on occupied land as part of that commitment – putting the brand on a collision course with Unilever, which it appears would like to sustain sales in that marketplace. 

The Ben & Jerry’s brand is defined by a strong voice on societal issues, seeking “ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally”.

Concluding that these values ran counter to a continued presence on occupied land, the brand stated: “We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).”

Unfortunately, the pullout is not as simple as it sounds, with a local franchisee licensing agreement permitting the ice cream to continue being sold across Israel, including the occupied West Bank, until the existing agreement expires in 2022.
This prompted Unilever to issue a clarifying statement saying: “Although Ben & Jerry’s will no longer be sold in the OPT, we will stay in Israel through a different arrangement. We will share an update on this as soon as we’re ready.”

It was this communique that raised the hackles of Anuradha Mittal, chair of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, who accused Unilever of violating a legal agreement made in 2000 when it acquired the brand by releasing the statement against its wishes and attempting to override the board’s decision to withdraw.

At the crux of the matter is a complex acquisition agreement designed to protect the independence of the Ben & Jerry’s board, who retain ultimate control of any changes to the product, licensing deals, markets and social mission.

Rebuking Unilever in a parallel statement of its own, the board wrote: “The statement released by Ben & Jerry’s regarding its operation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (the OPT) does not reflect the position of the independent board, nor was it approved by the independent board.

“By taking a position and publishing a statement without the approval of the independent board on an issue directly related to Ben & Jerry’s social mission and brand integrity, Unilever and its CEO at Ben & Jerry’s are in violation of the spirit and the letter of the acquisition agreement.”

A stand-off now looms, with Unilever reiterating its commitment to keeping Ben & Jerry’s in Israel, where it operates a manufacturing facility through its franchise.

The war of words highlights the difficulties inherent in prioritizing social justice in a world colored by shades of gray, with the issue coming to a head following a recent resurgence in violence. Never afraid to speak out on contentious issues, Ben & Jerry’s took a stand against white supremacy in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.