Let Boycotts Be Buycotts

Let Boycotts Be Buycotts

Another record breaking summer of heat this 2016 and the northeast of America is facing a drought. Unfortunately, since our less than lovely governor here in Maine, or notre cochon du fascism (our fascist pig), signed off on a 45-year contract with Nestle and Poland Spring, Mainers around the Fryeburg area have been seeing their wells drying up while water continues to be pumped out of the ground, shipped, sold, sucked, guzzled, and spat. Mainers, including myself, are fed up with having a local public resource being stolen for profit and sold back to us, as if we were being done a favor by Nestle and their global enterprise. However, there is not much one can do outside of spreading the good word and participating in a good old fashion boycott of all products Nestle. (Which means giving up Nerds and Nerds rope as well). As time went on I started to form reservations. Was not buying Poland Spring and yammering on about Nestle doing any good at all? So I took a half-hazard glance into what boycotting was all about and how it works as a tool for activists across the globe.

As it turns out Boycott is actually some poor British bastard’s last name. Forever will he be immortalized for his attempts to ignore altruism and basic human dignity. A cosmic irony if there ever was one, seeing as his name is now used to attempt to defeat such practices. Anyway, this Charles Boycott was a British land owner who treated his Irish workers so poorly that they began to do the most unthinkable disastrous thing any group of workers could ever do. They organized, forming the Irish Land League to help poor tenant farmers. They promoted the three Fs; Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure, and Free Sale. They then withheld their labor from Boycott in an effort to regain some dignity in their working situation. Now, of course, there have been actions of similar fashion before the 19th century, but for whatever reason this was the one that stuck and became a staple word in the English language that we continue to use today. In the end the British and loyalist Orangemen came to the rescue of Boycott and provided the lacking labor to harvest 500 pounds’ worth of food to the expense of 10,000 pounds’. While the Irish Land Leagues actions may have substantially set their British landowners back financially Britain would remain a powerful force on the Island, as we know now, well into the 21st century. So was the boycott successful? At the time it must have brought some degree of relief for the tenants. However, it surely did not bring about the desired goal of having workers be treated equally and not as second class citizens. It seems that, while an effective activist method, boycotting is not a cure all.

Since Charles Boycott’s landlording mishap, boycotts have been used by the Nazis against Jewish businesses, as well as the other way around. The American Jewish Congress also boycotted Nazi Germany in answer to the horrific treatment of the Jewish population there. The practice is clearly a go to political tool to achieve one’s goals. However, throughout our brief yet interesting human history boycotts have come and go and have all had varying degrees of success. While some faded away into obscurity others, like the S-Bahn train system boycott in Berlin, saw some results. This action was called on by unions and politicians to protest the construction of the Berlin wall and brought about a significant number of passengers opting out of the local subway and train service. However, it was not that action alone that would bring down the wall.

In the world we live in today the internet of things has transformed how we communicate and express ourselves. And in so doing it has transformed how we communicate and express our political desires. The internet has significantly augmented the way people can boycott. Now with the click of a button and a few search bars one can find a relatively good amount of information on the products and producers around the world. For example, a UK website, called the Ethical Consumer, has a list of 66 on going progressive boycotts across the globe. On the list are a few of the usual suspects; Wal-mart, British Petroleum, and Coca-cola. However, some of the companies on here were surprising. Bacardi has apparently been using the Cuban origins card in advertising while simultaneously lobbying the US government against lifting the embargo. Another surprising addition was Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. This is a Vermont company known very well for their fair business practices and community work. They make the list due to just one affiliation and one movement; the BDS. The company apparently sells ice cream to an Israeli franchise that has business in recently made settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is a group working hard against Israeli colonialism and apartheid and working toward justice and equality for Palestinians.

The list of 66 is just a taste of the current working boycotts. Many more still exist and not always for progressive action. In an article by the Guardian entitled “Do boycotts really work?” it is pointed out that “…a seemingly endless list of companies, movies, TV programs, actors, business executives and events are being shunned by consumers for some reason or another” (Watson, 2015). Out of the ongoing boycotts some have been around for decades. Since 1977, Nestle has been boycotted over their promotion of their own milk product over natural breast feeding. As time went on the company expanded their resume of shady dealings and human rights abuses. Recently, Nestle was involved in, not one, but two separate slavery charges. In Thailand they admitted to have found forced labor practices but at the same time they are fighting a child labor lawsuit in the Ivory Coast (Kelly, 2016). Consumers around the world will continue to buy their water and the chocolate and some cat food without a single thought of the consequences.

Another well aged boycott is not on a company but on a country. Since the Jewish State came into existence in 1948 it has been boycotted by many Arab countries. The movement over the years started to organize online and attract other peoples to the Palestinians plight. However, boycotts do not reach the UN Security Council, nor do they halt the magnificent turning gears of a capitalist giant like the Swiss chocolate makers of Nestle. The use of boycotts is effective, but only sometimes and only to a certain degree. And please do not think that boycotts are only used by progressive groups. While people across America are buying alternatives to Koch Brother products there are still consumers on the other side of the spectrum. The practice has been used by both pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT groups.

While many boycotts are limited in their reach sometimes the main goal is not just to influence one company, but the entire industry (Diermeier, 2016). To change a company from the outside is an insanely difficult thing to organize but it is not impossible. Sometimes all that really has to be done is to show the company and the world what the issue is. Just bringing attention to it can lead to some greater action down the road. A company may not lose a lot of money directly from your boycott but the money spent to cover up all the terrible nasty things being spread about them may be enough (Kieler, 2014).

Some might argue that boycotts do not work at all. Insisting that while you strategically pick out which companies are pious enough to stick around you are actually hurting the overall economy. “And unbeknownst to many of the pro-boycott folks, a great deal of their 401(k) and pension accounts are tied up in these corporations. Take them down and plan on working an extra year to make up for the smaller retirement checks” (Schneider, 2014). This position seems to take for granted that the magical economy may not have our best interests at heart. If we were to let the ‘Free hand of the market’ make all the decisions for us we may soon be wage slaves to a few Nestle type corporations in a few short decades. Kieler points out that it was boycotts by colonists to the Tea Act that led to the revolution, as well as boycotts of the Montgomery bus that helped launch a civil rights movement (Kieler, 2014).

Civil rights movements and labor rights movements may be all the rage, but the tool itself is used by religiously motivated groups as well, for example the American Family Association. Anti-equality and pro-exclusivity groups will also use boycotting as a weapon. They have been a hindrance to equal marriage rights for a quite a while. They have helped muster support for their cause and continue to promote Christian values in a nation founded on the idea of separating church and state. Samantha Allen points out here all the things you would have to give up to actively be against Trans-friendly businesses (Allen, 2016). Luckily, as noted before, not every boycott is successful. So the question is, when does a boycott work? And what will boycotts look in a future of rapid technological progress?

A boycott will not work simply by itself. If success is to follow the right conditions and connections need to be met. Sometimes a boycott may ‘piggy back’ in a sense on an already existing movement and together they may cause enough ruckus for change to start. It is difficult in these situations to say what was necessary and what actually caused the change in firm or industry behavior. Brayden King argues that companies that experience a decline in public trust are more susceptible to boycotts, and that the more attention that is brought to them, the more effective the boycott will be (King, 2001). But was it really the movement itself or was it the boycott? It is hard to say in such a complex issue that x + y = z. Americus Reed, a marketing professor at Wharton, found that visibility and severity are indicators of how successful a boycott can be (Reed, 2010). However, he notes that the internet and 24-hour news have desensitized people to news about such boycotts. “What is defined as outrageous becomes a harder threshold to cross,” Reed notes. “The frequency with which we are exposed to these [horrible] events will decrease the chance any one event will be seen as severe” (Reed, 2010).

It seems that executing a successful boycott is as difficult as navigating safely through a hurricane. Thanks to the internet there is an invisible war going on all around us. A war of moving money, this abstract concept not bound by matter, space, or time. Money was a means or tool of exchange and a holder of value, now it is capable of stimulating and slowing down the whole economy. With such great changes in the nature of our economy, changes in how people boycott were bound to happen.

With smartphones there are new applications utilizing the idea of boycotts. Now, whether you are a priest against contraceptives or you are a Scotsman pushing for independence, you can now track and shop smarter for your personal politics. Now you might find out a little sooner on that one of your favorite products actually funnels money against an issue you may care very deeply about. The app Buycott allows users to generate campaigns that encompass several businesses within the same issue or industry. By subscribing to Demand GMO Labeling you can scan products and it will tell you if it was made by one of the 36 corporations that have donated to oppose the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food (Shinseki, 2013). Creator of the app, Ivan Pardo, stated “I don’t want to push any single point of view with the app,” said Pardo. “For me, it was critical to allow users to create campaigns because I don’t think it’s Buycott’s role to tell people what to buy. We simply want to provide a platform that empowers consumers to make well-informed purchasing decisions” (O’Connor, 2013).

Although the intention with boycotting is clear, changing consumer culture will not be so easy.  It may also include actual “Buycotts”, as mentioned by Kieler (Kieler, 2014). This is simply shopping smarter and more locally to help benefit the people around you and in your daily life most. If we are going to have a change in consumer culture, if you want change in any culture, it takes more than one group, more than one aspect, more than one boycott, and more than one voice to change the society as a whole. So are boycotts effective? A hammer can either smash someone’s skull in or build a house for a family. As a social and political tool a boycott is a little less dangerous and can both be very successful and ultimately fail. Changing the behavior of humans may seem easy for advertisers, but for activists it is like telling your cat not to smack that glass off the table. All you can do is give consumers the avenue to do right and hope they take it (no matter how desensitized they are). Forcing them to do so may only cause them to further self-justify their sketchy purchasing behavior in the end. So keep an open mind  and simply check out what is in your refrigerator. You may find yourself surprised at the things you have been indirectly supporting.

Bibliography

Allen, S. (2016) All the things you can no longer buy if you’re really boycotting Trans-Friendly businesses. Available at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/26/all-the-things-you-can-no-longer-buy-if-you-re-really-boycotting-trans-friendly-businesses.html (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Berlin S-Bahn (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_S-Bahn#After_the_construction_of_Berlin_Wall (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Current list of consumer boycotts (no date) Available at: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/boycotts/boycottslist.aspx (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Diermeier, D. (2012) When do company boycotts work? Available at: https://hbr.org/2012/08/when-do-company-boycotts-work (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Kelly, A. (2016) Nestlé admits slavery in Thailand while fighting child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/feb/01/nestle-slavery-thailand-fighting-child-labour-lawsuit-ivory-coast (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Kieler, A. (2014) If A boycott works, it’s not just because people stopped buying stuff. Available at: https://consumerist.com/2014/05/17/if-a-boycott-works-its-not-just-because-people-stop-buying-stuff/ (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

King, B. (2001) Why boycotts Succeed—and fail. Available at: http://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/why_boycotts_succeed_and_fail (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

O’Connor, C. (2013) New App lets you boycott Koch brothers, Monsanto and more by scanning your shopping cart. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2013/05/14/new-app-lets-you-boycott-koch-brothers-monsanto-and-more-by-scanning-your-shopping-cart/#2c5139eb2c82 (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Pro-GMO? Or pro-right to know? – support the cause! (no date) Available at: http://www.buycott.com/campaign/211/pro-gmo-or-pro-right-to-know (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Reed, A. (2010) To boycott or not: The consequences of a protest – Knowledge@Wharton. Available at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/to-boycott-or-not-the-consequences-of-a-protest/ (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Schneider, C. (2014) ‘Buycott’ at your own risk. Available at: http://archive.jsonline.com/news/opinion/buycott-at-your-own-risk-b99337719z1-272760731.html (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Shinseki, E. (2013) Quote of the day. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2013/06/11/watch-forbes-test-buycott-app-on-anti-gmo-and-koch-products-in-supermarket-aisle/&refURL=&referrer=#15563a4245cc (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Watson, B. (2015) Do boycotts really work? Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/vital-signs/2015/jan/06/boycotts-shopping-protests-activists-consumers (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Citations, Quotes & Annotations

Allen, S. (2016) All the things you can no longer buy if you’re really boycotting Trans-Friendly businesses. Available at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/26/all-the-things-you-can-no-longer-buy-if-you-re-really-boycotting-trans-friendly-businesses.html (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Allen, 2016)

Berlin S-Bahn (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_S-Bahn#After_the_construction_of_Berlin_Wall (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Berlin S-Bahn, 2016)

Current list of consumer boycotts (no date) Available at: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/boycotts/boycottslist.aspx (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Current list of consumer boycotts, no date)

Diermeier, D. (2012) When do company boycotts work? Available at: https://hbr.org/2012/08/when-do-company-boycotts-work (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Diermeier, 2012)

Kelly, A. (2016) Nestlé admits slavery in Thailand while fighting child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/feb/01/nestle-slavery-thailand-fighting-child-labour-lawsuit-ivory-coast (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Kelly, 2016)

Kieler, A. (2014) If A boycott works, it’s not just because people stopped buying stuff. Available at: https://consumerist.com/2014/05/17/if-a-boycott-works-its-not-just-because-people-stop-buying-stuff/ (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Kieler, 2014)

King, B. (2001) Why boycotts Succeed—and fail. Available at: http://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/why_boycotts_succeed_and_fail (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(King, 2001)

O’Connor, C. (2013) New App lets you boycott Koch brothers, Monsanto and more by scanning your shopping cart. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2013/05/14/new-app-lets-you-boycott-koch-brothers-monsanto-and-more-by-scanning-your-shopping-cart/#2c5139eb2c82 (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(O’Connor, 2013)

Pro-GMO? Or pro-right to know? – support the cause! (no date) Available at: http://www.buycott.com/campaign/211/pro-gmo-or-pro-right-to-know (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Pro-GMO? Or pro-right to know? – support the cause!, no date)

Reed, A. (2010) To boycott or not: The consequences of a protest – Knowledge@Wharton. Available at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/to-boycott-or-not-the-consequences-of-a-protest/ (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Reed, 2010)

Schneider, C. (2014) ‘Buycott’ at your own risk. Available at: http://archive.jsonline.com/news/opinion/buycott-at-your-own-risk-b99337719z1-272760731.html (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Schneider, 2014)

Shinseki, E. (2013) Quote of the day. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=http://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2013/06/11/watch-forbes-test-buycott-app-on-anti-gmo-and-koch-products-in-supermarket-aisle/&refURL=&referrer=#15563a4245cc (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Shinseki, 2013)

Watson, B. (2015) Do boycotts really work? Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/vital-signs/2015/jan/06/boycotts-shopping-protests-activists-consumers (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

(Watson, 2015)

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