By Tony Ryan.
We owe the word “boycott” to Charles C Boycott, but Charles didn’t stage the first boycott in history, or popularise the practice – he copped the boycott that gave boycotting its name. An English landowner in Ireland, Boycott was economically shunned by his entire community in 1880 after he evicted tenants who couldn’t pay.
Boycotts can be personal affairs, as with my own (mostly) steadfast refusal to eat fast food (12 years running, if you don’t count one regrettable, alcohol-soaked lapse).
Charles may have been incensed that his name was borrowed that way, and, being an old-timey member of the landed class, he may have been the kind of bloke to be equally angered that boycotting caught on as a popular mode of activism – the most popular form, if you ask George Monbiot. Since Charles’s day, boycotts, mass refusals to patronise a company – or even a whole country – on the grounds of its behaviour, have been many and various: they’re prompted by concerns ranging from animal welfare and workers’ rights to environmental degradation. They can be well organised, as with the famous Delano Grape Strike of the ’60s, in which over 14 million Americans refused to eat grapes produced by the labour of underpaid workers in the States, or they can peter out with a whimper. They can span hemispheres and beyond, as has the decades-long fight over Nestlé’s sales of baby formula to developing countries, and they can be personal affairs, as with my own (mostly) steadfast refusal to eat fast food (12 years running, if you don’t count one regrettable, alcohol-soaked lapse).
Charles Boycott might also be pleased to learn that boycotting has had its critics. You don’t have to look far to find examples: some argue that certain targets of boycotts are corporations so huge that even a popular boycott can’t dent them, others that boycotts sometimes only hurt lower-level employees; if a company suffers financial loss at the hands of boycotters, it may be able to weather the storm by making staff redundant – hardly the desired outcome. And that’s when they have any effect at all – analysis from Princeton has found that most boycotts are too small to have any potency, and that they generally aren’t sustained for long enough to be effective.
On the other hand, proponents of boycotts are right to say that some of them result in real change. At the international level, the boycott of South Africa’s apartheid system by Australia and other nations in the ’70s is credited with helping to bring down the racist regime. And at the consumer level, history abounds with examples of successful boycotts: from 1791, hundreds of thousands of English people refused to buy sugar produced by slaves. This, the first recorded large-scale boycott, is significant because its participants saw themselves as citizens taking upon themselves the power to act where parliament had failed to do the right thing; more recently, boycotts and pressure from NGOs in Australia and elsewhere forced Asia Pulp & Paper to end its destruction of forests – the company even later thanked Greenpeace for helping it to see the light. And boycotts helped persuade all major Australian suppliers and producers of tuna to commit to sustainable fishing. Daniel Diermeier at Northwestern University argues that boycotts are effective when they’re accessible to many, easy to understand, and fuelled by media coverage, pointing to the 1995 Greenpeace boycott of Shell over the deep-water disposal of a petroleum platform, which resulted in a 40% reduction in German sales for the company.
Then there’s the “cliff” argument. If everyone else were walking off a cliff, or, say, buying goods produced in conditions that are unfair on workers, would you? Though your purchases may have an immeasurably small effect on a company’s bottom line, and no effect on its practices, the alternative to steering clear of its products or services is to, well, give in. Acknowledging that your refusal to buy a company’s product won’t change anything needn’t lead to the conclusion that you should buy it.
In the world of activism, a strong current of belief streams towards the idea that boycotts are most effective when they are conducted in tandem with other forms of protest, ones that let the subject of the boycott know that it’s ticking people off.
For example, there is a long and venerable history of people taking to the streets and helping to correct injustices, from the civil rights movement in the US in the ’60s, to the march that led to Australian workers being the first to achieve an eight-hour working day. In the world of consumer affairs, one of the most famous recent sit-ins occurred when Applebee’s Restaurants customers in the US publicly breastfed babies near the company’s outlets in protest at its policy of banning breast-feeding in its stores. The campaign worked.
Boycotts are most effective when they are conducted in tandem with other forms of protest
There’s also “clicktivism”, sometimes known by the more disparaging name “slacktivism”, a form of online activism conducted mainly through petitions. But it has certainly copped its share of flak: its detractors say that Facebook “likes” let social media users delude themselves into thinking they’re making a difference, and that clicktivists labour under the “illusion that surfing the web can change the world”. But consumer power harnessed through the internet has led to real change: Australian insurers’ have changed their practices in response to online petitions, and a Georgetown University study found that online activism brings about change indirectly, by building communities, raising awareness and prompting further action: “digital activism rarely ends with the click of a mouse”. Communication is important; after all, even when these companies’ bottom lines are affected by a boycott, they won’t necessarily know why unless they’re told.
If you decide to boycott a company, on your own or as part of a collective effort, keeping track of the company you’re boycotting is vital. I’m a big pasta eater, and I’d been avoiding Barilla-brand pasta since sometime in 2013, when the company was the subject of a boycott for its policies on LGBTI people. But in 2014, Barilla cleaned up its act, unbeknownst to me for some time. To help you keep informed, Shop Ethical and Britain’s Ethical Consumer collate lists of ongoing boycotts initiated by a range of organisations. These may not dovetail with your values, of course, but it is possible to keep tabs on any boycotts you think worthy of your time.
Charles Boycott would be astonished today. A Google search for “boycott” brings up over 33 million results, and social media has given impetus to discussions of corporate bad behaviour and made it harder for companies to control the conversation about their brand. In Australia, 2016 alone has seen boycotts made or threatened against egg producers, electronics brands and Aldi, among others. Organised, widespread boycotts like these can put pressure on companies to change their ways. But to have the best chance of success, they are often best accompanied by other forms of activism.