Around the world co-operatives have been pioneers of boycotts. One of the biggest was a boycott of South African goods in protest against apartheid repression and the incarceration of Nelson Mandela.
“In 1977 the TUC approached the Co-operative Union seeking their support in a week long boycott of South Africa goods,” says Mervyn Wilson, principal of the Co-operative College. “Later that year, the Co-operative Press Annual Shareholders Meeting passed a resolution calling for the Press to discourage further advertisements for South African produce.
“The debate continued into the 1980s. Resolutions were discussed at members’ meetings in many societies, with growing pressure for a boycott. While some argued for ‘consumer choice’ and warned of the potential damage to trade, including editorials in the News itself, pressure grew inexorably.”
In 1985, Co-operative Retail Services and the Co-operative Wholesale Society stated it would no longer stock any produce from South Africa. Other societies soon followed, with Scotmid and Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester among the first to ban South African goods in response to member pressure.
Today, the Co-operative Group boycotts goods from illegal Israeli and Moroccan settlements. In 2009, the Group’s Human Rights and Trade Policy outlined that it would withdraw trade from a “state, area or settlement” if either of those is considered illegal. “There are only two examples of such illegal areas,” says a statement from the Group. “The Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and the Moroccan settlements in Western Sahara.”
In 2012, the Group board went one step further and decided it would no longer engage with any supplier of produce known to be sourcing from the Israeli settlements. This decision has had an impact on four suppliers, and circa £350,000 of trade. In its statement at the time, the Group said: “This position is not a boycott of Israeli businesses, and we continue to have supply agreements with some 20 Israeli suppliers that do not source from the settlements, a number of which may benefit from a transfer of trade. We will also continue to work to increase trade links with Palestinian businesses in the Occupied Territories.”
In response to the recent events in Israel and Gaza, Revolver coffee co-operative has examined its supply chain and cancelled an order of packaging film from an Israeli company. Paul Birch, director, calls on other co-ops to do the same. He commented: “If the least we can do is the least we should do, then boycotting Israeli goods has to be the start. We should require our government to embargo supplies to Israel. Particularly arms. During this conflict, the US and UK have continued to supply arms to Israel.”
However, former director general of the ICA, Iain Macdonald, believes boycotting Israeli products could impact on co-operatives in Israel, some of which may be working with co-ops in Palestine. He says: “In my view, one of the ways we can try to encourage the co-operative movement to practically support peace is by supporting co-ops in Palestine who are having a tough time.”
Figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics confirm that in 2012 there were 263 agricultural co-operatives in Palestine, 238 in the West Bank and 25 in Gaza.