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'We're not woke', says Unilever boss

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An Orthodox Jewish man passes a Ben & Jerry's fridge in Jerusalem
An Orthodox Jewish man passes a Ben & Jerry's fridge in Jerusalem

The boss of Unilever has insisted the consumer goods behemoth is not "woke", as he sought to distance it from a decision by its Ben & Jerry's brand to stop selling ice cream in occupied Palestinian territories.

Alan Jope rejected the label despite saying the Marmite, Domestos and Magnum owner is committed to campaigning for "universal human truths" such as social justice and refugee rights.

Unilever has long trumpeted its social values, slashing carbon emissions across its brands and vowing to become "a beacon of diversity and inclusion".

However, it sparked fury in Israel this week when Ben & Jerry's said that serving occupied territories went against its values. Naftali Bennett, the prime minister, threatened the FTSE 100 company with "severe consequences" as a result.

Shares fell almost 6pc after Unilever said it had been hit by rising inflation costs.

Asked if Unilever was a woke business, Mr Jope said: "I would not like to characterise Unilever as a woke company. We’re not, we're driven by purpose. It drives a stronger business performance.

"We know that the consumer of tomorrow is making more conscious choices. Sustainability, over time, takes costs out [of the business]... it’s a magnet for the best talent, not just for younger people.”

He added that Dove is well-known for campaigning to improve self-esteem for girls, while Domestos is seeking to provide good sanitation across the planet and Hellmann's is fighting against food waste.

Mr Jope said that the independent board of Ben & Jerry's was behind the brand's Israel boycott, and that Unilever respected their decision in line with an acquisition agreement it signed 20 years ago.

The ice-cream company’s founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, started their business in a Vermont petrol station in 1978 and six years later set up the Ben & Jerry's Foundation before selling to Unilever in 2000.

Mr Jope said: "In the same way that Ben & Jerry’s have campaigned on issues of social justice, refugee rights and climate justice, I think the majority of our brands’ purpose-related initiatives are linked to universal human truths and it’s the nature of what our brands do."

The remarks came after Unilever updated the City on its half year results. It warned that it was grappling with the toughest inflation in more than a decade, and it has already hiked some prices globally on items such as skincare.

Mr Jope said that it has not passed on the costs to customers in the UK, but it anticipated “low, single digit price rises” in the coming months. He added, however, that Unilever was not experiencing “hyperinflation” and it would weather the storm.

Underlying sales rose by 5.4pc in the first half compared with 2020, with turnover of €25.8bn (£22.2bn).

Unilever hinted that a jump in prices of commodities including crude, palm and soya bean oil could hold back profits in the second half of the year. The underlying profit margin narrowed to 18.8pc from 19.8pc a year earlier.

Higher crude prices push up to the cost of making home-care products such as detergents, while shower gels and soap products are made from palm-oil.

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