Business | Analysis

Only boycott for change, not to keep things the same

Consumer activism isn’t always simple, but we shouldn’t back away from any interest in how companies behave

  • Zoe Williams; The Guardian News & Media Ltd
  • Published: 21:00 January 21, 2013
  • Gulf News

At the moment, I’m still boycotting Starbucks over the tax avoidance revelation the company’s “here’s £20 million over two years” solution struck me as the worst possible gesture, admitting the misdeed while at the same time remaking the world as a place where PR is more important than taxation, and a business can decide how seriously to take either, on a whim. I’m not convinced that my boycott is damaging its income terribly. So this is mainly a vindictive thing.

I’m also boycotting Amazon, again over tax; this is incredibly inconvenient, and means I’ve basically had to stop buying books and new music altogether. But in another way, it’s a blessing in disguise, because I never read the books they just mounted up beside my bed in a precarious, accusatory tower of unfulfilled self-improvement.

There are elements of consumer boycotting that are completely clear and unanswerable. If you genuinely disapprove of a company’s behaviour, whether it’s aggressively marketing baby milk formula to mothers who aren’t assured a clean water supply, or avoiding tax and undercutting honest, pro-social companies, there is no justification for spending your money with it.

However trivial your custom may seem, the alternative is to overplay your insignificance, to turn your impotence into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not all small boycotts turn into large boycotts; but large boycotts, or even large-scale disgust, can have a profound affect on a firm’s fortunes. About £300 million (Dh1.7 billion) was wiped off Tesco’s market value within 12 hours of people discovering there was horsemeat in its burgers (though it bounced back later). That was before any of us had a chance to stop eating the bloody things.

Making a difference

At a level more fundamental than corporate identity, there are things we should boycott because they pervert the ecology or economy, or more likely both, of the places that grow them cocaine, carnations, quinoa but it’s harder to whip up any fury against them because there’s no hate figure, no identifiable Big Business running away with a swag bag. As a result it’s even harder to believe you’re making any difference with your consumer activism (although many people boycott cocaine anyway, on account of its being illegal).

Then there comes a point where you’re running multiple boycotts, and glaring at people who eat Kit Kats (owned by Nestl). The lines of demarcation begin to blur. How far does your responsibility to disapprove of people go? Only as far as the distributor, or do you have to find out how the horse got into the burger in the first place, and then what kind of a life the horse had had? And now, of course, the ethics go awry because consumer choices are only as meaningful as the sacrifices they entail for the person who’s making them. It’s so easy to shade into Organix territory, where the choice of one vegetable over another has as much to do with luxurious self-assertion and neurotic self-preservation as it has to do with any ecosystem.

In short, there is nothing simple about consumer activism. The more you eschew, the more you realise you need to eschew, and if you were to seek perfect orthodoxy it would probably look like vegetable production from your own back garden, with some loo roll bulk-bought in conjunction with your friend who is a hippy.

Morals

The failure of HMV has raised another question in the morals of shopping, which is this: should we continue to shop in “meat space”, as techies call it (the opposite of cyber space which is to say, the real world)? Should we keep our music shops alive, despite the inconvenience of having to go to them, and the fact that they almost never have what we were looking for? Do we have a duty, in commerce, to keep alive the human interaction element? Do we blame ourselves for the job losses, every small act of sloth ‘n’ Google a hammer blow to the Jessops business model?

From a Keynesian point of view, is there a collective responsibility to keep people in work, so that they can afford to buy the stuff the transaction of which keeps other people in work? I think in the end, while I have sympathy with this position, and more sympathy still with the 4,000 HMV employees who are staring down the barrel of redundancy, this is too Luddite to hold, however devoutly you wish it to. And furthermore, it’s unnecessary.

Fragile

There were people who argued (of course there were) that washing machines were a bad thing, because women would feel redundant. It turned out that, without laundry, women simply found other things to do. We will find other ways to occupy ourselves once exchange has largely been mechanised; we will find other ways to sell our time to one another; ideally more meaningful transactions than 5 (but just look at that value) for American Pie 2.

This doesn’t mean that, as consumers, we should back away from any interest in the way companies treat their staff. I actually meant to stop going to Starbucks a couple of weeks before the great tax swindle was unveiled, on discovering that some of their employees do shifts of fewer than four hours. But boycotts are fragile things; it’s hard to measure their results, it’s easy to feel discouraged, and it’s often inconvenient especially when you’re nowhere near a Caffe Nero. If there’s oneprinciple that breathes some life into the process, it’s this: boycott for change, not to keep things the same.

Twitter: @zoesqwilliams

guardian.co.uk Guardian News and Media 2013

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