The Consumer boycott in the UK

July 9, 2010
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This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005.

This article was written in 2010 as a contribution to a BNC e-magazine commemorating the 5th anniversary of the BDS call in July 9th 2005. Click here to read other articles in the magazine.

The consumer boycott in the UK has mainly focussed on the supermarkets and the sale of fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs and dates from Israel, imported by Israeli companies including Carmel Agrexco, Arava and Mtex, plus a specific campaign against the settlement based Ahava Company, which sells Dead Sea products.  The campaign has focussed on the four major supermarket chains, Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose and Morrisons, as well as smaller chains, including the Co-operative food stores. In common with several other European countries, we have also seen the development of the Ramadan Dates campaign.


Public awareness of the idea of a boycott of Israeli goods has increased markedly since the 2008/2009 Gaza massacres. Activities range from individual acts of conscience not to buy Israeli products and letter writing, through to an increased amount of collective activities, including co-ordinated days of action against specific supermarket chains.


The aims of the boycott can be described as:


A popular, consumer boycott of all Israeli produce, carried out to some degree by the majority of British shoppers. This means ‘normalising’ the idea of boycott so it becomes the obvious and collectively accepted choice to make as occurred in the latter years of the Anti Apartheid movement.  Secondly, a complete ban on the import of all goods from illegal settlements into the UK, based on arguments about illegality as well as justice and morality. This second aim will involve a range of tactics including both consumer pressure and political and legal campaigns.


A secondary aim of the consumer boycott is that, for many people, it represents the first step they will make to commit to the idea of boycott, divestment and sanctions, and that campaigning on the consumer boycott involves engaging the public in discussions about the realities of life for the Palestinians. A commitment to boycott Israeli goods may then lead to other actions, including more active involvement in the BDS movement and in the wider solidarity movement.


Achievements to date:


The Co-operative group and Marks and Spencer’s both have an explicit policy of not stocking settlement produce in any of their stores. The Co-operative group established a Human Rights and Trade policy in 2009 with an explicit statement ending trade with settlements, because of the illegality of the occupation and the calls from representatives of the dispossessed in the region that a cessation of trade was desirable.


Nationally the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has passed a resolution on settlement goods and together with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has launched the campaign ‘Ban Settlement Goods’. The Scottish General Council of the TUC has also passed a resolution recommending a full commitment to boycott, divestment and sanctions.


There are long standing campaigns directed at all the supermarkets. These range from letter writing, seeking meetings with management, through to direct action inside and outside supermarkets, talking to shoppers and workers, removing goods from the shelves, and filming activities.


In December 2009 the British Government (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)  issued guidance to retailers to distinguish settlement goods from Israeli produce and from Palestinian produce. This guidance was in direct response to lobbying and consumer pressure. All the major supermarkets claim to be following the guidance. This though does not deal with deliberate mislabelling of settlement produce or deliberate mixing of consignments by companies such as Agrexco.  There is anecdotal evidence that Sainsbury, Waitrose and possibly Morrisons supermarkets are currently avoiding selling settlement produce, and since they claim to be following the labelling guidance, their purchasing practices in relation to settlement produce has become more visible.


In response to the evidence about mislabelling of settlement produce and the consequent evasion of import duties the British Revenue and Customs office has twice amended its regulations (In 2005 and 2008) because of evidence of mislabelling and of lack of co-operation by the Israeli Authorities. In spite of these changes Revenue and Customs have been criticised (most recently in a Parliamentary debate on tax evasion by Israeli companies in January 2010) for their lack of rigour and the failings of their office. More widely the EU was also criticised for not taking measures to investigate or prevent fraud by Israeli companies. Both Agrexco and Ahava were explicitly named in the debate and the UK Government have recently confirmed that checks are being carried out on these companies by Revenue and Customs.


There is a growing awareness amongst campaign groups of the need to coordinate work more effectively and also to ensure that campaigns are based on rigorous and up to date research and testimony about Israeli products, Israeli companies, and the trade with the European market. More campaigners are accessing and utilising the work produced by Who Profits and by Kav Laoved, and also supplying both these Israeli based organisations with intelligence from the UK.  The work of two UK based groups, Corporate Watch, which carries out research in Palestine and in the UK to track corporate complicity in the occupation of Palestine and the Brighton Tubas Solidarity group, which is working with the Jordan Valley Solidarity group is becoming more widely known and its research used in campaigning work.  In 2009 a range of groups from the UK, together with groups from Ireland, Belgium, France and Norway met together for a weekend of workshops on BDS. These groups established the Boycott Israel Network, to support activist activity and improve co-ordination.  The network holds weekend residential workshops every six months and enables groups to support one another in, for example, establishing local consumer campaigns.


Challenges for the UK consumer boycott campaign.


Further work on co-ordinating campaigns is required, both inside the UK and across Europe, particularly in relation to campaigning against Agrexco and the other major Israeli companies. We are becoming better at utilising a multi pronged approach (using complaints processes, direct action at retail outlets, campaigns against the import companies), and we need better ways of co-ordinating this work to make it more visible and maximise the impact. This includes improving our visibility in the British media. Another challenge is to win the arguments with customers for a complete boycott of Israeli goods, rather than simply a boycott of settlement produce.  A key step towards doing this is to focus on the activities of the import companies which supply Israeli produce to our supermarkets, all of which also operate in the West Bank and Golan Heights. A number of campaigning groups are currently working together on a dossier to present to the Co-operative group on Agrexco, calling on them to cease all trade with Agrexco. In effect, this will mean a complete end to the sale of Israeli products in Co-operative food stores.

Hilary S. is an activist for Palestinian rights


July 9, 2010
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