One soda maker’s role in an international conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging for more than 40 years, claiming thousands of lives and adversely affecting the lives of thousands more. So it comes as a surprise that the newest movement to end the injustices there involves a soda company. The SodaStream Company, known for producing make-your-own soda machines, has come under fire for opening a factory in the West Bank, a part of Palestine that has been occupied by Israel.

Since then, there has been an international effort to boycott products from SodaStream in order to punish them for utilizing labor in a politically questionable area, which some critics say perpetuates the occupation by Israel. From a business standpoint, these efforts should not be underestimated.

Bloomberg Business Week reported that the company’s stock has dropped in the last two years, largely as a result of these public efforts to boycott the group. But in the end, no one should care whether a producer of a specialty kitchen product ends up going out of business. The real question in this case is whether these efforts will ever help influence a resolution to the conflict in the region. Leila Abdul Razzaq, the head of DePaul’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, is hopeful.

“I think if a boycott movement takes hold, it can really change people’s attitudes about an issue and result in real change. We have seen this throughout U.S. history, from the UFW’s grape boycott for farm workers’ rights to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the Civil Rights Movement … (Boycotts also) helped bring down apartheid in South Africa.”

In the past I personally wrote about the ethical consumer movement and the role that consumers can play in choosing to avoid companies that are unjust, particularly in the case of a collapsed factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers in 2013.

When previously discussing the topic with Laura Hartman, a DePaul professor of business ethics, she concluded, “Producers are dependent on the purchasing power of consumers. If producers don’t please them, they cease to exist. Consumers can make the ultimate decision.”

There is indeed a big difference in the role of the companies between the situation in Bangladesh and the situation in the West Bank. In the case of Bangladesh, managers of these factories were actively cutting corners and creating buildings that would never pass a single safety test in the States, all for the sake of employing workers that earned a pittance in pay. In contrast, SodaStream employs over 900 Palestinian workers.

These workers are adequately supported with wages of close to $60 a day – much more than the local average of $24 a day – and the company functions as one of the few sources of reliable work in the depressed region of the West Bank.

The company’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, once stated, “Our factories are apolitical. We don’t take sides in this conflict.”

SodaStream does not seem like an overt abuser of Palestinian rights, and a successful boycott would indeed hurt the livelihood of the workers for a time. In this case, however, there is a larger concern that involves the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the continuation of Israeli business practices in the West Bank is seen as legitimizing the settlement and occupation of Palestine and prolonging a final end to the conflict.

As Abdul Razzaq explained, “The lack of work is just one of many problems that stem from the Israeli occupation. Employing Palestinians in Israeli settlements (and) society is a band-aid solution at best, and at worst perpetuates the problem. The only way to achieve justice for Palestinians is an end to the occupation.”

If an end to the occupation arises out of boycott efforts, the ends could justify the temporary pain that workers would endure. But how likely does an end to the conflict look in the near future?

“SodaStream is just one boycott target in a larger movement,” Abdul Razzaq said. “Boycott, divestment, and sanctions have already been working for Palestine … with an enormous shift in mindset and a heightened awareness of and intolerance for Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people.”

Furthermore, there have been peace talks between the two sides that have been ongoing since July 2013. Although they have not resulted in a resolution yet, it may mean that peace is close around the corner. If a boycott is what is necessary as the final push for these talks to end the conflict, so be it.

It is then our duty as ethical consumers to support these efforts to put international pressure on the groups and companies that perpetrate this conflict. Many Palestinian workers, although destitute, understand the ramifications of this issue. An anonymous Palestinian worker speaking to the Christian Science Monitor acknowledged that although he is dependent on the pay from SodaStream, the existence of Israeli business settlements in the West Bank is part of a larger issue.

“I’m ashamed I’m working there,” he says. “I feel this is our land, there should be no (Israeli) factory on this land.”

Jill Nyof, a member of DePaul’s Fair Trade Committee, explained the role of the consumer in these situations.

“If the laborer stands alone, they will often find themselves out of a job. This is why it’s so important for consumers to stand in solidarity with the laborers in order to demand their rights. The consumers and laborers need to work together to demand more.”

As consumers, its time for us to have a say in resolving one of the worst conflicts our world has seen in the last few decades.