When young California-based developer Ivan Pardo launched smartphone app Buycott last year, users at first seized upon its technology to avoid putting coins in the coffers of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
Everyday shoppers using iPhones or Android devices could scan the barcode of, say, Brawny paper towel or Dixie cups and trace the corporate ownership of both kitchen cupboard staples to Koch Industries, the conglomerate run by the politically active (and thereby controversial) industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Other popular user-generated Buycott campaigns at the time of its launch included Demand GMO Labeling, allowing shoppers to scan a box of cereal and instantly see if it was made by one of 36 corporations that donated more than $150,000 to oppose the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.
Today, more than a year since the app first gained ground, Buycott’s fastest-growing campaigns are those allowing shoppers to avoid products deemed to support Israel.
As the Israel-Gaza conflict has intensified in recent days, Buycott has seen a surge in users joining groups with names like ‘Avoid Israeli Settlement Products’ and ‘Long Live Palestine Boycott Israel.’
The latter was created in April by a British teenager, but floundered with a few hundred members through mid-July. It now counts over 220,000 shoppers as users, with its numbers climbing daily. By way of contrast, a user-created campaign to boycott Nestle for alleged human rights abuses has 57,000 members.
“I noticed 3 weeks ago that we were seeing an unusual spike in traffic, but there hadn’t been any articles written about the app or Israel campaigns,” said Pardo. “Next thing I knew Buycott was a top 10 app in the UK and Netherlands, and #1 in a number of Middle Eastern countries. Word was spreading through social media.”
‘Long Live Palestine Boycott Israel’ lists 49 companies for those opposed to Israel’s policies or tactics to avoid. These include Sabra, makers of the bestselling hummus in the U.S., jointly owned by Israeli company Strauss and PepsiCo. Strauss saw 2013 revenues of $2.3 billion, up 4.8%, thanks mostly to the growth of hummus’ popularity in North and South America.
Strauss has been the subject of stateside boycotts before. In 2010, students from Princeton and DePaul Universities urged their cafeterias to stop stocking Sabra after Strauss listed its financial support of Israel’s elite Golani Brigade military unit on its website. That particular web page no longer exists.
Other Israeli companies in this campaign’s database of scannable barcodes include SodaStream, the home soda maker which allows you to turn tap water into cola. SodaStream has long faced criticism for operating out of Ma’aleh Adumim, an industrial park within a West Bank settlement.
Earlier this year actress Scarlett Johansson was forced to defend her role as a spokesperson for the brand after outcry from aid group Oxfam. The organization criticized the star for appearing in SodaStream’s Superbowl ad, saying in a statement: “Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.” Johansson later stepped down from her advocacy role with the charity.
Some of the links to Israel cited within Buycott’s user-created campaigns appear tenuous. Starbucks, for instance, falls under the ‘avoid’ category because its billionaire founder Howard Schultz “was honoured by the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah with ‘The Israel 50th Anniversary Friend of Zion Tribute Award’ for his services to the zionist [sic] state.”
Starbucks maintains it has no explicit ties to Israel. In a statement on the coffee giant’s website, the company makes clear that it offers no financial support to Israel’s government or armed services.
At press time, there was one comparatively small campaign on Buycott’s platform encouraging shoppers to support Israel with their wallets.
There is also an entirely unrelated movement called Buycott Israel, a project of the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, offering to “help [consumers] combat boycott and/or divestment campaigns against Israel.” The site appears inactive, with the blog’s last update posted over a year ago.
Forbes reached out to both Strauss Group and SodaStream for comment on these boycotts and will update this post with any responses.