Sorry, boycotting SodaStream won’t fix the Israel-Palestine conflict: Chris MacDonald

“Conscious consumerism” cuts both ways

Scarlett Johansson and a SodaStream soda maker

SodaStream unveils Scarlett Johansson as its first-ever Global Brand Ambassador at the Gramercy Park Hotel on January 10, 2014 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty)

Controversy continues to bubble over the SodaStream countertop carbonator. The popular home gadget—used to turn regular tap water into a variety of fizzy drinks—has generated talk due to the fact that SodaStream operates a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank. For some, raging against SodaStream is just part of a larger effort to boycott Israeli products, or at least products made in the occupied territories. They point out that Israeli settlement in those territories is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

Nonetheless, it is probably tempting for many to shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. Many North Americans without a partisan tie to the issue may just think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of  “those” conflicts “over there.” Consider: for the average middle-aged North American, it’s a conflict that has been making headlines for literally our entire lives, with both sides apparently taking turns at acting badly and no end in sight. It’s understandable if a few of us consider it a wash, declining to take sides and staring blankly when the topic comes up.

SodaStream’s spokesperson, incidentally, is none other than Scarlett Johansson. The Jewish Daily Forward referred to Johansson’s affiliation with the company as an unhelpful “normalizing” of the Israeli occupation. After all, what could be more normal and peaceful than opening up a factory and offering people employment? There’s a sense in which that might be an understatement: building factories on occupied land—any occupied land—could easily be thought of as an act of war.

On the other hand, as defenders of the company point out, the factory is giving jobs to a few hundred Palestinians, and giving someone a job is hardly an act of aggression. For that matter, in most parts of the world it is acknowledged that commerce is generally conducive to peace. The more prosperous people are—roughly, the more they have to lose—the less likely they are to engage in warfare.

Does it matter, either way? From the point of view of outcomes, it’s hard to see much value in avoiding buying a SodaStream, even given a principled objection to operating factories in occupied territory. Your purchase (roughly $80 to $120) isn’t buying guns, or barbed wire. And the fraction-of-a-fraction of the purchase price that ends up contributing to the company’s bottom line isn’t going to either keep SodaStream in business or put them out of it. Your purchase, in other words, is trivial.

But isn’t refusal to buy a SodaStream another example of the growing, and generally positive, trend toward “conscious consumerism”? It arguably is, but in fact the benefits of conscious consumerism are not as obvious as many would have you think. As my friend Professor Alexei Marcoux argues, refusing to do business with someone because you disagree with their values is a dangerous road to go down. Given the huge number of moral disagreements in the world, we should think twice about becoming the sort of people who let such disagreements get in the way of engaging in mutually beneficial trade. That’s not a knock-down argument against any and all principled refusals to do business, but it’s a point worth making.

Now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no garden-variety disagreement. But that might just be the point. It’s not at all clear that we should want a controversy so bitter, and so protracted, to occupy our purchasing decisions.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education and Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management

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7 comments on “Sorry, boycotting SodaStream won’t fix the Israel-Palestine conflict: Chris MacDonald

  1. Mr McDonald has done a brilliant job in demolishing a thesis that he himself constructed. I’m not certain who said that boycotting SodaStream would solve the Palestinian problem. No one that I know off. I’m afraid that’s straw man logic at work. I suppose during the boycott of South Africa some said the same. It takes a a combination of things over a considerable time to achieve success, particularly when one side has total power over the other side.

    I’m also uncomfortable with your easy assessment that both sides act badly. When Israel is conducting an illegal military occupation under international law, has several hundred UN sanctions against it, a dismal human rights record, demolishes Palestinian homes at will, arrests Palestinians without cause and detains them without trial, and restricts movement of people, water, food and medicine, they are acting unilaterally. Palestinians have no such ability to retaliate.

    How easy it is to whitewash a military occupation with a few hundred Palestinians jobs, while ignoring the brutal settlement process, again declared illegal under international law. If economics sanctions are so futile, I wonder why western governments are so eager to use them again their declared enemies… e.g.Iran?

    • I didn’t write the headline, and the claim you’re worried about doesn’t appear in the text.

  2. What’s ethics and what’s other issues here? The effectiveness of boycotts is a (highly complex) matter for historical, diplomatic etc analysis. The legitimacy of boycotting falls within ethics. Chris doesn’t say so explicitly, but I hear a tone of “Marketplace decisions must be judged solely on the basis of results for suppliers/vendors and for purchasers.” No. The marketplace is within society. I think it’s legitimate — even imperative — for purchasing decisions to be taken and assessed in their wider context.

    Chris ends by counseling modesty — this is so complex, let’s not stick our noses or wallets into it. So small acts don’t matter? It mattered that Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Maybe it mattered that my friend changed brands after I showed her where her sherry had been made (in apartheid-era South Africa). And on it goes. Change may be the product of small acts, not just large ones. (A big theme of Tolstoy in War and Peace. See also George Haynal, former Canadian diplomat and Bombardier executive, on “corporate statecraft.”) Whether or not they are effective is not an ethical issue. Whether a person may legitimately consider them a good thing to do, is certainly an ethical issue.

    • I’m not saying that market decisions must be judged solely on the basis of results for me the consumer. But Marcoux’s argument is that, as a matter of character, we should make a presumption in favour of ignoring the values of the people we do business with. We have benefitted enormously from getting past the point, e.g., where Protestants wouldn’t buy from Catholic merchants, etc.

      Nor do I deny that small acts can matter. it’s just that generally they don’t. So a degree of caution is warranted in violating the principle above.

      Effectiveness is absolutely an ethical issue, because the outcomes of our actions matter morally. Effectiveness is not a *decisive* issue because there are typically other factors (rights, duties, dignity, character etc.)