Marmite maker has continued to sell products in Russia despite criticism
ByHannah Boland 3 July 2023 •
Unilever, the food giant that prides itself on its “social purpose”, has been named “an international sponsor of war” by the Ukrainian government.
The company, which owns Marmite, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Dove, was accused by Ukrainian veterans of “contributing hundreds of millions in tax revenues to a state which is killing civilians”.
The consumer goods giant said last year it would review its operations in Russia in the wake of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the company – known for taking ethical stances – has continued to sell food and hygiene products in the country, with executives from the company saying earlier this year that “exiting is not straightforward”.
It came as Unilever’s new chief executive Hein Schumacher began his first day in the post.
Unilever has previously faced criticism from investors over its ethical stance. Terry Smith, a leading fund manager who owns a 0.6pc stake in the business, last year accused it of spouting “corporate gobbledegook” and “meaningless platitudes”, adding: “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot.”
The group of veterans and international activists – part of the Ukraine Solidarity Project – on Monday installed a billboard outside of Unilever’s London headquarters, showing wounded Ukrainian soldiers in the style of the company’s Dove adverts. It came on the same day that Unilever was officially placed on the Ukrainian government’s international sponsors of war list.
Anna Nolan, from the Ukraine Solidarity Project, said Unilever’s comments that it was reviewing its position in Russia raised questions on “what it would take for them to leave Russia, given the amount of war crimes that we’ve already seen being committed”.
She added: “It prides itself on being a leader when it comes to environmental and social responsibility, but it does have a blind spot when it comes to conflict-affected areas and Ukrainians are paying the price for that lack of leadership.”
Valeriia Voshchevska, a spokesman for the activist group, claimed that, by staying in Russia, Unilever was also funding the Wagner mercenary groupwhich MPs in Britain have urged to be designated a terrorist organisation.
Laws in Russia require all large companies to “contribute directly to the war effort, including potentially through the conscription of Unilever’s 3,000-strong workforce”.
Ms Voshchevska said: “[Unilever] risks its staff and resources being mobilised into Putin’s machine. Some of the world’s biggest companies have already left Russia. It’s possible – after 16 months of war – that the time for excuses has passed.”
Unilever declined to comment. In March it said it would cease all imports and exports in and out of Russia and would not be profiting from its presence in Russia but said it would continue to supply “everyday essential food and hygiene products” made in the country.
The company said at the time that it was “the best option, both to avoid the risk of our business ending up in the hands of the Russian state, either directly or indirectly, and to help protect our people”.
Activists have claimed that other international companies have left the country successfully. Ms Nolan said: “There isn’t a precedent that when these companies have left that Russia has the capacity, skills and experience to take these companies over and run them at the same efficiency.”
McDonald’s, for example, last year closed all its restaurants in Russia, selling the sites to a Russian fast-food chain which rebranded them under a new name which translates as “Tasty and that’s it”.
However, the Russian company said sourcing any products from abroad had been marred by complications and the disappearance of the Big Mac burger from menus was described as “a big loss”.
The addition of Unilever to Ukraine’s list of international sponsors of war will raise questions over how it will be viewed by Ben & Jerry’s – which is viewed as Unilever’s most ethically-focused brand.
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is not sold in Russia. However, it has not shied away from clashes with its parent company.
Its Ben & Jerry’s brand in particular has adopted hardline stances on social issues and geopolitics, finding itself at the centre of controversy on a number of occasions.
Last year, the ice cream brand criticised US President Joe Biden for efforts to try to avert a war in Ukraine. Ben & Jerry’s wrote on Twitter: “Sending thousands more US troops to Europe in response to Russia’s threats against Ukraine only fans the flame of war.”
The comments were criticised by then-Unilever chief executive Alan Jope, who said Ben & Jerry’s was “a great brand, most of the time they get it right”.
“They have a great track record campaigning on important issues. But [on] subjects where Unilever brands don’t have expertise or credibility it is best to stay out of the debate.”
The ice cream brand also attempted to boycott occupied Palestinian territories – sparking a row with its owner Unilever, which blocked the move. Instead, Unilever sold Ben & Jerry’s Israeli business to a local operator. Unilever at the time said it “rejects completely and repudiates unequivocally any form of discrimination or intolerance”.
Unilever has been contacted for comment.