What Discount Rate Are Activists Applying to the Boycott of SodaStream?

SodaStream spokesperson Scarlet Johansson has become embroiled in the controversy.

SodaStream spokesperson Scarlet Johansson has become embroiled in the controversy

It seems UK retailer John Lewis is pulling SodaStream, the popular home carbonation product, from shelves, thanks to the efforts of the the incoherent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement:

SodaStream, the Israel-based beverage machine maker being targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement because of its West Bank production plant, has suffered serious setbacks in recent days in Britain, the Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday.

John Lewis, one of the country’s largest department store chains, and whose Oxford Street store in London has been targeted by biweekly BDS protests, announced it was taking SodaStream’s flavored seltzer makers off its shelves. The Jewish Chronicle said the company’s announcement came last week, and was attributed to “declining sales.”

The impact appears to extend beyond department store John Lewis:

[O]n Monday, EcoStream, SodaStream’s store in the tourist town Brighton, closed after facing weekly protests for two years.

While, like 63% of Israelis, I would like to see the 47-year occupation end, I don’t think that’s really relevant. As I argued a few months ago at The Conglomerate, the BDS movement’s tactics in targeting SodaStream exemplify a lot of serious internal contradictions at the heart of stakeholder activism.

For starters, the BDS movement depends on an implicit hierarchy of stakeholder interests that prioritizes the sensibilities of privileged foreign consumers over the day-to-day interests of actual Palestinian employees. Those consumers don’t want to feel complicit in buying products made by Palestinians who live in the territories, so they take action that hurts Palestinians who live in the territories. It’s more than a little patronizing for BDS activists in London to declare themselves defenders of the Palestinians’ “true” interests and simultaneously advocate for the closure of SodaStream’s West Bank facility, which employs 500 Palestinians. Should SodaStream’s Palestinian employees really have no voice in whether their jobs are sacrificed for the greater good of Palestinian statehood, or should that decision be made by consumers in London?

The SodaStream boycott is the opposite of boycotting a clothing company because it makes clothing in an unsafe sweatshop. Conceivably, such a company could improve working conditions in its factory and its workers would benefit. Here, BDS activists won’t rest until 500 of the putative beneficiaries of their campaign are out of a job.

In addition to uncritically privileging consumer interests over employee interests, the BDS movement also lacks a limiting principle—generally a red flag. I addressed this earlier at greater length, but here are a few examples:

  • The boycott plainly discriminates against SodaStream because it’s based in Israel.
    • BDS proponents claim to be targeting SodaStream because it operates in the West Bank (and thereby indirectly supports the occupation), not because it’s Israeli in origin. Would they have targeted SodaStream for employing Palestinians in the West Bank if the company were based somewhere—anywhere—other than Israel? Plenty of non-Israeli companies do business in the West Bank, so this seems implausible.
    • Let’s suppose instead, as appears to be the case, that SodaStream (a small public company) was selected both because it’s based in Israel and because it operates in the West Bank. What if a major foreign company, like GE, bought SodaStream? Surely activists would not boycott a giant like GE merely because a single, tiny subsidiary operated one of its many factories in the West Bank, if for no other reason than that they’d receive no popular support.
  • Boycott proponents must show their work. Achievement of the BDS movement’s goal would mean unemployment for West Bank employees of SodaStream. I’d like to see discussion by boycott proponents of the tradeoffs between employees’ jobs and agency, on the one hand, and what is likely to be a minor PR victory on the other.
    • SodaStream’s West Bank employees almost certainly share with their fellow Palestinians (and BDS activists) the goal of an independent Palestinian state. But there ought to be a balancing analysis here, and it ought to be explicit. Boycott proponents are subordinating individual Palestinian employees’ near-term interests in having a job to the long-term community goal of creating a Palestinian state. The BDS movement should explain how it decided that what (they view as) some incremental progress is worth the cost of these 500 jobs, particularly given that unemployment in the West Bank is close to 25%.
    • The most likely outcome of a successful boycott of SodaStream is that the company will divest from the West Bank but the occupation will continue.

On that last point, let’s be clear: if these boycotts are as successful as their supporters hope, SodaStream will relocate their West Bank factory (something the company is already reportedly considering) but the occupation will continue. That will mean the 500 Palestinians who work for SodaStream in the West Bank will be fired. While this might salve the conscience of BDS activists, the occupation—and the company—are really not going anywhere anytime soon.

The most persuasive justification of the boycott on its own terms is that a defeat of SodaStream will lead to successful boycotts of higher-profile companies, which would in turn ratchet up pressure on Israel to end the occupation. It’s canonical in these circumstances to invoke South Africa. But bracketing for the moment the question whether that boycott truly helped bring down apartheid (a contested point), the fact remains that it’s the only arguably successful example of its kind. The usual outcome is that boycotts do not force governments to change their foreign policy.

Thus, to avoid harming the intended beneficiaries of their campaign, advocates of a given boycott should apply a high discount rate to account for the probability that their campaign will not succeed. In other words, given that the BDS boycott will probably fail to achieve its declared goal of ending the occupation, BDS activists should explain why people like the West Bank SodaStream employees should be okay sacrificing their jobs in the process. More precisely, why they should be okay having that decision made for them.

After all, these Palestinians have almost certainly considered the conundrum of working for an Israeli company that operates in the West Bank, and by definition they have decided that any moral or political benefit in refusing to do so is outweighed by the practical advantages of employment. Even if one believes, as I do, that they probably lack a meaningful alternative, that does not mean that foreign consumers should try to eliminate their jobs. That is basically a non sequitur, not a sign of sincere or effective advocacy.

On that note, it goes without saying that you can be opposed to the occupation, or Netanyahu or Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza today or all of the above, without supporting the boycott of private firms that do business in the West Bank. Especially where that business activity is trivial in a macroeconomic sense, but is critical to the individuals who work those jobs. The BDS boycott is poorly conceived, and is less likely to achieve its declared goals than it is to take away the livelihoods of its declared beneficiaries. And that also makes it an excellent case study in how not to conduct stakeholder activism.

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One thought on “What Discount Rate Are Activists Applying to the Boycott of SodaStream?

  1. Pingback: What Financial Regulation and the Israel-Palestine Conflict Have In Common | Just Shilling

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