activism business consumerism fair trade

boycott the boycotts – engaging positively with consumerism

The trouble with much of what we write about here is the powerlessness that goes with it. It’s not hard to talk about the problems with things like supermarkets or sweatshop clothes. People don’t really persuading that they’re bad. The much bigger issue is what to do about it.

The snap answer here is the boycott. It’s often the first resort. I read about Tesco, and I no longer shop there. I view an index of ethical practices and see that Next comes very low on the list, and I don’t buy clothes there any more. Ultimately though, we need to do better than that, for a number of reasons.

1. All or nothing
Firstly, choosing whether or not to boycott something can be a luxury that not everyone enjoys. I’d love it if we could all stop shopping in supermarkets, and I do my best to avoid them when I can, but for many people that’s just not possible. What if you don’t have corner shops, a farmer’s market, an independent high street? Often the supermarket is all you have. Calling for a boycott of supermarkets is a waste of time. People are guaranteed to carry on as normal, only now they feel bad about it too.

Not only that, if we make our campaigns ‘all or nothing’, and people can’t do the ‘all’ we ask of them, they have no choice but to do the ‘nothing’. We’ve asked too much, and that makes it easy for people to say no. And so things never change. If a boycott is impractical, it risks excluding a lot of people.

2. The problem of scale
Secondly, boycotts only work on a huge scale. That’s kind of obvious, but it doesn’t stop people loudly denouncing companies and telling all their friends never to darken their doors again. Individual choices do matter, but only to a tiny degree. It takes a massive movement to make a real difference with a boycott. There have been some good examples, like Nestle in the 80s, or Nike being forced to confront (if not solve entirely) their sweatshop practices. Others however, have barely made a dent. Total is still in Burma, CocaCola is still in every fridge.

There are dozens of boycotts in operation, for all sorts of reasons, from small companies to the whole of Canada. They are all well meaning, but most of them will make no difference whatsoever. They will just never gather the momentum needed, and the organizers’ time and energy will have been wasted.

3. De-activism
The biggest problem with the boycott is that is passive. It does sometimes involve some campaigning, protesting, and general agitating, but at the heart of it we are asking people to ‘not do something’, rather than ‘do something’. Some participants will be active, but the vast majority will just respect the boycott without campaigning for it. To take the example of supermarkets, thousands of people will stop using them and move their custom elsewhere. From now on, they will ignore the supermarkets, and to ignore something is ultimately the opposite of activism. The boycott becomes simply a withdrawal from the problem, and once dis-engaged, we are able to keep the moral high ground while actually doing nothing useful to solve it.

4. Creative engagement
The more I read and write about the consumer culture, the more I discover that I don’t like. I have a list as long as my arm of companies I don’t want to support. One of these is Gap, for example. I could join the boycott against them, even take part in ‘Gapatista’ protests, but why stop there? Primark need it just as badly. Next need to be boycotted too, and Banana Republic, and Levi’s, and just about every high street brand you care to mention. The problem is endemic. Backing out is both impractical and futile.

So what do we do instead? I think a better solution to boycotting is to engage with the companies more creatively. Labour Behind the Label recently ran a campaign against Fila sportswear that encouraged Fila customers to send a postcard to the company, with their receipt stapled to the back. It’s easy to ignore a half-baked boycott somewhere, but genuine customer feedback needs to be respected. That sounds much more constructive to me. It says ‘we like what you’re products, but we want to see you do better’, rather than ‘I want nothing to do with you’.

The Chicken Out campaign has been realistic in its approach to supermarkets. Rather than encourage people to shop elsewhere, they have recommended that customers ask their favourite supermarkets to stock free range chicken. As demand went up and limited stocks ran out, customers were asked to take pictures of the empty shelves, as evidence to the supermarkets that they weren’t supplying enough.

Where we can, we should exercise the freedom of our consumer choice to buy things that we know are ethically produced, but the choice isn’t always available. Where it isn’t, let’s make our displeasure known, and suggest ways that the companies might want to improve. One of the big excuses that companies use is there is that the market will not support the necessary price rises to make things organic, fairly-traded, or sweatshop free. Write to companies you like and tell them you’d remain a customer if their prices went up a little to accommodate fairer, greener practices.

How about taking a positive rather than a negative attitude? Here’s a little exercise we can try.

  1. Make a list of five favourite companies. It could be the maker of your most comfortable shoes, your normal breakfast cereal brand, the supermarket nearest your home, your mobile phone manufacturer, anything that you value, that you’d miss if you didn’t have it any more.
  2. Find out about the company. Search out their ethical practices, read up on where their products are made, the conditions of workers, their environmental record.
  3. Write or email the company your response, as a satisfied customer with a few questions. If their record is good, congratulate them. If it’s bad, tell them your concerns and ask what they’re doing about it.

There are plenty of good reasons for ducking out of the consumer culture, but let’s not ignore it. Let’s work with, rather than against the companies, because we won’t win by opposing them. Let’s be positive, ask for the changes we want to see, and remember to praise what is good as well as condemn what is bad.


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