Ethical Consumption in the News: October 25-31

Throughout the final week of October six ethical consumption news items are noteworthy: the pro-Palestinian BDS movement was ruled hate speech in France; the legal battle continues over Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law; fossil fuel divestment advocates reacted to Bill Gates’ anti-divestment statement; specific fossil fuel divestment achievements were reached; efforts intensified to stop the haze caused by forest burning in Southeast Asia; and some U.S. police unions called for a boycott of Tarantino films. Read below for more on each of these stories.

1. Israel Boycotts Ruled Hate Speech in France

Early this week, a French court upheld a prior ruling in which a group of 12 pro-Palestinian activists were fined for urging participation in the BDS movement (boycotts, divestments and sanctions), which asks consumers and businesses to forgo products made in Israel, on human rights grounds. The activists were prosecuted under hate speech laws.

While the BDS movement is controversial, this ruling is cause for potential concern amongst boycott activists, as it associates boycott activities with discrimination. The ruling will have particular relevance for Canadians that may remember a similar controversy in May 2015, when it was rumored that Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was prepared to direct the Ministry to apply hate crime laws against groups promoting the BDS movement. These rumors prompted an onslaught of public pressure. While Minister Blaney unequivocally denied the rumors, calling them “inaccurate and ridiculous”, the recent French court decision serves as a reminder that the freedom of boycott movements is not a foregone conclusion, and that ongoing efforts will be needed to preserve the space for consumers to act as moral agents.

2. GMO Woes: Legal Battle Over Vermont Law Continues

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) – a large trade association for food, beverages, and consumer products that represents more than 300 large companies from Coca-Cola and Pepsi to Kellogg, Nestlé, and Hershey – has continued its legal challenge to a Vermont law (the “Right to Know Act”) requiring the labeling of food and beverages with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which is set to go into effect soon (labeling is required by July 2016). Currently, GMA is seeking to prevent Vermont from implementing the law until litigation has been resolved. A U.S. district court had previously ruled against GMA but the trade association appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Second Circuit case is called Grocery Manufacturers Association, et al. v. Sorrell (Case No. 15-1504). There has yet to be a ruling on this issue. Although it continues to oppose the law, GMA recently issued guidance for companies on how to comply with the law.

3. Kayakctivists Urge Bill Gates to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Bill Gates recently made waves when he stated that divestment was not a real solution to climate change. In a latest demonstration of displeasure with the statement, Seattle “Kayakctivists” this week urged the Gates Foundation to divest from oil and coal. It wouldn’t be the first large philanthropic foundation to do so – despite its history in big oil, the Rockefeller Foundation divested from fossil fuels a year ago.

Fossil fuel divestment proponents argue that it is an important step to reduce the profitability of fossil fuel companies, as well to reduce the extent of influence wielded by fossil fuel companies both because of the financial resources at their disposal and because investment in fossil fuels by public organizations give them a vested interest in the continuance of fossil fuel dependence. Bill Gates and others have criticized fossil fuel divestment, arguing that it is ineffective (for example, continually dropping coal stock prices have led some to speculate that the industry may be on its way out, irrespective of divestment efforts). You can read more about this debate in the Pullback article on fossil fuel divestment here.

A few notable figures have voiced support for fossil fuel divestment this week. Prince Charles leant his voice to the fossil free movement, calling for divestment and for decarbonisation of the global economy more broadly. This plea comes about one month before governments will meet in Paris for COP21 climate talks. Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley has also said that he supports fossil fuel divestment on U.S. campuses.

4. Some Small Victories for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Newsworthy fossil fuel divestment efforts this week pertain to campuses, congregations, Australia, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

News on divestment efforts by universities is largely positive this week. The Concordia University Foundation board decided to divest $5 million USD from fossil fuels; recently, it has been announced that this money will be reinvested in the socially responsible investment firm Nelson Capital Management. Fossil fuel divestment demonstrations took place at NYU and University of Pennsylvania this week. Also in the U.S., the Student Assembly of the State University of New York passed a resolution calling for the university to divest from fossil fuels. Divest McGill presented the case for fossil fuel divestment at that university’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility. Meanwhile in the 6ix, Toronto held a rally at the University of Toronto to signal support for fossil fuel divestment ahead of recommendations by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels that are expected soon. Similarly, Boston University is waiting on recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing.

Delegates from 114 Anglican congregations in the Ottawa area will vote this weekend on whether to follow in the United Church of Canada’s footsteps by divesting from fossil fuels.

Australia made strides in support of fossil fuel divestment this week. The City of Melbourne has barred its $38 million (Australian dollars) portfolio from investments in companies aligned with fossil fuels. Simultaneously, the National Tertiary Education Union became Australia’s first union to divest from fossil fuels. Another big Aussie divestment announcement came from the Australian Academy of Science, which will also go fossil free.

Finally, it will become easier for U.S. pension funds to divest. The U.S. Department of Labor has issued new interpretive guidance that will give pension funds greater space to make socially responsible investment decisions, for example through fossil fuel divestment.

5. Anti-Haze Efforts Continue to Target Firms

Calls for boycotts of forest-burning palm oil producers to end ongoing haze in Southeast Asia were recently accompanied by legal action when Singapore’s National Environment Agency began legal action under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act against Singapore-listed company Asia Pulp and Paper Group (APP), as well as four other Indonesian forms. Similarly, several businesses in Singapore have refused to sell APP products.

6. Boycott Used as a Tactic by Police Union Rebuttal to U.S. Black Lives Matter Movement

Some police unions in the U.S. have called for boycotts of Tarantino films after the director said that some officers have murdered innocent civilians at a rally in Manhattan to protest police shootings. Supporters of the boycott are concerned that inflammatory rhetoric will put police officers at risk, while proponents of Tarantino’s comments insist that highlighting the endemic problem of police brutality, especially against African Americans, is essential to address the problem.