Enough time has passed for this Denver Broncos fan to address a kerfuffle surrounding this year’s Super Bowl. I’m writing, of course, about Hollywood siren and liberal activist Scarlett Johansson, who appeared in a Super Bowl SodaStream commercial to the chagrin of international charity Oxfam for which the otherworldly beauty served nine years as official spokesperson.
Oxfam, listed in the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility’s 2014 Proxy Resolutions and Voting Guide “Guide to Sponsors,” told Johansson she had to choose between her gig with the charity or serving as pitchwoman for the company that markets a home-beverage carbonating product. Oxfam’s rationale was that SodaStream operated one of its 22 facilities worldwide in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Oxfam favors a two-state solution to the perpetual conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t know about readers of this site, but I know that when it comes to matters of major geopolitical importance this guy’s a sucker for international beverage boycotts.
In this regard, Oxfam employs much the same tactics as ICCR when it pushes its shareholder resolutions at companies regardless the consequences to the very same people they’re attempting to assist. As noted by Gregory H. Shill over on the Conglomerate blog this week:
Ostensibly, the SodaStream boycott is being conducted on behalf of the Palestinian community and cause. The assumption is that short-term pain (i.e., probable unemployment) for the factory’s 500 Palestinian employees is the price of long-term gain (i.e., a Palestinian state) for the community.
Politics aside, the SodaStream boycott assumes a hierarchy of stakeholder interests that seems extremely tenuous. Even those sympathetic to the boycott—and this is probably obvious by now, but I am not—acknowledge that shutting SodaStream’s West Bank factory would bring hardship to a lot of Palestinian families who depend on those jobs. I would add that that sacrifice is a really bad deal for those stakeholders if the boycott does not succeed (and most don’t). Regardless, the question of the normative justness or wisdom of the boycott is beside the point—what about those stakeholder employees? They’re not trying to live their politics; they want to work. What value do we place on their interests versus those of boycott advocates? In other words, how do we assess the boycott from a stakeholder perspective?
I can’t explain Oxfam’s logic better than Prof. Shill. Regardless readers’ views on issues occurring in the Middle East, it would seem obvious SodaStream is a politically neutral company that just wants to sell homemade fizzy drinks, recognize a profit for the company and its shareholders and, perhaps most important, benefit the stakeholders that Shill identifies as “employees, suppliers, customers, community members, and other constituencies beyond its owners.”
Oxfam seems more interested in aping the ICCR strategy of demonizing the companies in which its members invest to further shortsighted liberal agendas while simultaneously and subsequently hindering the company’s stakeholders. While Oxfam considers forcing 500 employees out of work just so many broken eggs necessary for their concept of the perfect omelet, ICCR badgers the companies in which it invests with nuisance resolutions that negatively impact fellow shareholders and, as a result, stakeholders. If those resolutions are successful, it is the stakeholders who take it most on the chin in economic terms. Shill asks some thought-provoking questions:
- The Palestinian SodaStream employees almost certainly share the same political aspirations as their community (e.g., statehood). Yet they’re rejecting the boycott by working for SodaStream. Shouldn’t stakeholder-employees get a voice in whether they are forced to sacrifice their jobs in service of community goals?
- What’s the boycott’s limiting principle? Should no foreign businesses be permitted to employ Palestinians in settlements? What about a non-profit? Why limit it to settlements? If SodaStream moved its operations a few miles up the street to Palestinian-governed territory, would the BDS movement call off the boycott?
- SodaStream is headquartered in Israel. Does the boycott only apply to Israeli firms? If so, could SodaStream continue to operate in the West Bank if it sold itself to a foreign company? Stakeholder theory self-consciously promotes the observance of international law and fairness norms. Under what circumstances is per se discrimination on the basis of employer nationality okay?
- More broadly, what is the limiting principle behind privileging somewhat amorphous community interests over the clear and important interests of a defined group of stakeholders, like employees? Aren’t the sum total of global interests affecting a firm (e.g., preventing climate change) always going to be more powerful than narrow stakeholder interests (e.g., jobs on oil rigs)?
It’s doubtful ICCR shareholder activists are asking these types of questions before endeavoring to further their anti-corporate agenda, but – like Johansson – they should. Perhaps then they’d tear a page out of her playbook. Just like no one puts Baby in a corner, Johansson told Oxfam to take a hike, and proceeded with her Super Bowl ad. Yes, beauty’s only skin deep, but I knew there was something a bit deeper to admire about that woman.