Nordstrom Prides Itself on Caring, But Not When It Comes to Making Profits from Occupation of Palestine

There is a global consensus that Israel’s unceasing annexation and seizure of Palestinian land, water and natural resources, and its ongoing military control of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Gaza, spell not only misery for the millions of Palestinians suffering today, but also disaster in the long term for all the region’s inhabitants, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Much like the response to South African apartheid in the 1980s, a worldwide movement of citizen voices has arisen to ensure that, as consumers, investors and simple human beings, people of conscience will no longer participate in practices that allow the occupation regime to benefit from silent inclusion in business as usual.

This movement is having a growing and profound impact.

Just this month, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni announced that unless Israel can show it has begun to engage in good faith negotiations with the Palestinians, the growing European movement toward boycotting Israeli settlement goods—those made with resources from or in factories and farms situated on land stolen from Palestinians—will soon extend to all Israeli goods, to huge effect on Israel’s economy.

Across the world, consumers are galvanizing public opinion and making changes that are setting the stage for real change. In South Africa, for instance, many products that have been imported under the “Made in Israel” label have now been forced, under vociferous objections from the Israeli government, to change their labeling to “Originating in West Bank—Israeli Goods”—an admission that is a first step toward exposing Israeli fictions about the provenance of much of its export industry, but that also opens the door to further, and sure-to-be-successful, legal challenges under international law to Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian resources.

Among the goods forced to re-label in South Africa are those produced by the luxury skin care firm Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories. Ahava has its manufacturing facility and visitors center in the illegal settlement of Mitzpe Shalem in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The company uses in its products mud sourced from the occupied shores of the Dead Sea, and its goods are made in the Occupied West Bank. But here in the United States, Ahava still gets away with labeling its products “Made in Israel.”

All that is changing: the worldwide boycott movement is catching up with Ahava, while human rights groups within Israel have worked assiduously to document Ahava’s illegal practices and misleading public relations campaigns. American retailers now have nowhere practically or rhetorically to hide—they can no longer credibly claim ignorance or confusion.

For its next drive, CodePink’s Stolen Beauty campaign, which has been for the past five years organizing and educating specifically around Ahava cosmetics, will be pressing U.S. retailer Nordstrom, as well as one of its owners, Calvert Investments, to live up to their oft-proclaimed commitments to social responsibility, and remove Ahava products from Nordstrom’s shelves.

Over the years the Stolen Beauty campaign has scored numerous victories: Ahava spokesmodel Kristin Davis was suspended from publicity work as an Oxfam Goodwill Ambassador for the duration of her Ahava contract; Abigail Disney renounced her share of the profits and the corpus of her family fund’s investment in Ahava; the flagship Ahava store in London’s Covent Garden lost its lease because of biweekly protests by human rights advocates; the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations in the United States and the United Church of Canada voted to boycott Ahava products. Many shops, once informed about the company’s illegal practices, have stopped carrying Ahava products.

Now it’s Nordstrom’s turn.

Nordstrom prides itself on its commitment to “caring.” On the “Nordstrom Cares” page of its website the company claims, “We've always followed a simple philosophy when it comes to running our business: Leave it better than you found it. This also describes Nordstrom's commitment to social responsibility. Since our early days, we've focused on doing the right thing for our employees and our customers. We continue to make every effort to be an ethical company where people want to work and shop.”

Because of this commitment Nordstrom is included in Calvert Investments portfolio of socially responsible businesses. Calvert is a leading investment management company with a long track record in socially responsible investing.

Since 2010, supporters of human rights and international law have been in communication with Blake Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom, Inc., and his team about the company’s sales of products from Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories. In response to letters, phone calls and store protests, Nordstrom issued this response:

Because this is a sensitive issue that certainly has two sides, and we don't think as a retailer it's appropriate for us to take a position on either side, we have looked toward the requirements we have of all our vendors as our deciding factor for whether to continue offering Ahava products. We require all products we offer to be labeled with their accurate country of origin according to U.S. requirements. To ensure that Ahava's products are labeled appropriately, we asked Ahava, who worked with an approved independent third party, to thoroughly review and report on their product development, sourcing and labeling. Based on that review, it is our understanding that the Ahava products carried at Nordstrom are labeled correctly according to U.S. requirements.

As you mention, we do ask that our vendor partners also adhere to our Nordstrom Partnership Guidelines, which cover many human rights subjects such as employment practices, workers' rights, environmental standards and work environments. As part of this review, an independent third party has found no instance of human rights violations by Ahava. If there were any found, we would immediately address them.

Dismissing entirely the fact that Ahava sources the minerals used in its products from occupied shores, which is forbidden as pillage and plunder under international law, and claiming that adhering to lax U.S. labeling laws is sufficient, while countries around the world, from Ireland to South Africa, are challenging Ahava’s misleading representations about the provenance of its goods, Nordstrom goes on to claim that Ahava and an “independent third party” have found Ahava’s practices to be kosher. To be sure, the predominantly Jewish Israeli workers in Ahava’s West Bank factory are treated quite well, but the fact that the plant itself is situated on occupied Palestinian land is in itself a human rights abuse.

While it is little surprise that Ahava with the assistance of this unnamed independent third party found itself to be in compliance with international law and human rights law, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem issued a report belying this claim. The report, titled “Dispossession and Exploitation: Israel’s Policy in the Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea” found:

The Ahava cosmetics firm, in Kibbutz Mizpe Shalem, produces products from the high-mineral-content mud of the northern Dead Sea…International law prohibits the establishment of settlements in occupied territory and exploitation of the resources of occupied territory. B'Tselem calls on Israel to evacuate the settlements, to enable Palestinian access to all the lands that have been closed to them, and to allow them to use the water sources for their purposes. In addition, Israel must remove the restrictions on movement in the area and enable construction and development in the Palestinian communities. Israel must also close down the enterprises that profit from the minerals and other natural resources in the area, and it must also shut down the facilities for disposal of Israeli waste. 

At the very least, American retailers can follow the lead of a growing number of nations and companies insisting on honest labeling for goods made under such circumstances, allowing consumers to make an informed choice about whether to purchase products that are made by Israeli settlement profiteers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Recently Andrew Standley, the current EU ambassador to Israel, stated in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that similar labeling is being teed up in Europe, because, as he put it, “this is a consumer protection issue first and foremost.”

In recent days the European Union has taken an even tougher stand on Israeli settlements, issuing a directive requiring Israeli companies wishing to ink deals with member states to sign a “settlement exclusion clause.” While this doesn’t for the moment encompass trade, it does mean, for example, that Ahava would be excluded from EU research programs, such as a recent nanotechnology project it participated in.

Thousands of people committed to human rights and international law, and to equality, dignity and justice for all in Israel and Palestine, have sent letters to Blake Nordstrom calling on him to remove Ahava products from Nordstrom’s shelves. Those interested in the issue can sign a Causes petition directed at Nordstrom, which will be hand-delivered to the company’s corporate headquarters. It is time to tell Ahava and Nordstrom that educated and concerned consumers have had enough of land and resource theft.


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