To Boycott or Not To Boycott

Recently I embarked on what should have been an easy task — the purchase of a new winter jacket. My old one was tattered, torn, and out of style. After a long search I finally found the perfect choice at Mark’s Work Warehouse in Bedford. As I brought it to the counter, almost as an afterthought, I checked the tag to see where it was made. Indonesia. The nation whose military is slowly committing genocide against the peaceful people of East Timor, who ask for nothing more than independence.

Reluctantly I put the jacket away and resumed my search, eventually settling for my second choice, a nice jacket with a nylon hood that is about as useful for fighting the wind as fishnet. The jacket I chose was made in Korea, not as nice as the other one, and more expensive. But worth the sacrifice, I thought, to ensure that my money would not be used for the purchase of ammunition and guns used to kill the innocent. Later I learned that other Asian nations such as the Philippines and Korea were allegedly providing military aid to Indonesia to assist its repression of the East Timorese. So much for the great boycott.

The experience left me wondering if it was really worth it to boycott at all. I was left with questions such as: Can boycotting really help? Who if anyone should be boycotted? Are there any companies or governments that are not guilty of some ethical violation? Violation of human rights, violation of animal rights, violation of the environment. What I have learned is that the answers to these questions is largely a matter of personal choice. Therefore it is not my intent to sway any readers one way or another, but to assist you in reaching conclusions on how you as a consumer can make a difference, and make better, more informed purchasing decisions.

The answer to my first question is yes, boycotting is an effective tool for social change, when used correctly. According to authorities on the subject such as the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Greenpeace, INFACT and the International Wildlife Foundation (IWF), the key is to focus on a vulnerable target which is a leader in ethical violations, and communicate directly with that organization. For example, RAN combated the use of beef raised in the rainforest by targeting Burger King (BK), a company very sensitive to public image, and a large user of rainforest cattle. RAN used extensive networks of members to influence conscientious consumers through the use of large-scale communication efforts such as Adbusters campaigns. As a result, BK ceased using rainforest products, and McDonalds and Wendy’s immediately followed suit. RAN attacked the most vulnerable competitor first.

Determining who should be boycotted is not so easy, as my jacket-purchase fiasco indicates. Based on some quick research, I have assembled a short list as follows:

  • Nestle for selling infant formula banned in the US to African nations;
  • tuna distributors for harming dolphins;
  • Maritime tourism for hunting seals;
  • PepsiCo (including KFC, Taco-Bell, Pizza Hut, Frito-Lay, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, Ocean Spray, East Side Marios, Liptons), Eddie Bauer, NorthWoods and Liz Claiborne for doing business with human rights violators;
  • Kraft, Maxwell House, Oscar Mayer, Kool-aid, Miller, General Foods, Post, RJR Nabisco (including Fig Newtons, Oreo, Ritz, Planters and Del Monte), the entire tobacco industry, Carnation, Libby’s, MJB, Perrier, Chase and Sanborn, Ralph Lauren, Gloria Vanderbuilt, L’Oreal, Friskies, Taster’s Choice, Coffeemate, Advil, Anacin, Robitussin, Chef Boy-ar-dee, Jiffy, Black Flag, and Easy-off for Health and Welfare violations;
  • Adidas, Browning, Florsheim and Puma for threatening endangered species;
  • Blockbuster Video for censorship;
  • CIBC and Mitsubishi/Mitsushiba for supporting unsustainable timber interests;
  • Gillette and Procter & Gamble for animal testing;
  • California Grapes (including United Farm Workers, La Paz, and Keene) for poor wages and working conditions;
  • LL Bean for attacks against women’s and minorities’ rights;
  • the entire meat industry for environmental, human rights, and animal rights violations.

This ‘short’ list is what leads me to my third question, is it safe to buy anything from anyone? Consider the products you use every day. You wake up, you eat breakfast. Coffee, who makes it? Eggs, what chicken suffered and what third world nation was deprived of grain? You shave, what animal was abused first? You dress, who was enslaved so you could keep warm? Even the place we live is considered a tourism faux pas because our own government, which we consider so advanced by world standards, has failed to ban what is largely considered an unnecessary annual seal hunt. So what are we to do? We have to eat, we have to live somewhere, we have to keep warm, and shaving is often appreciated though not essential.

The answer, as I have said, is all about personal choice. The first step is to know your values. What is most important to you, and what offends you the most? Is it censorship? The environment? Human rights? The second step is to be aware. To make a conscious effort to know what companies and what governments are doing what. When someone violates your values, they violate you. The third step is to not give these organizations one iota of your business. Finally, communicate and negotiate with the organization. Write a letter, make a phone call, explain why you have chosen not to buy products from certain organizations. And for those who are most dedicated to their causes, join an organization that can help magnify the effectiveness of your boycott by making it a national or international issue. Through being socially aware and joining with others who are also aware, a strong force can be created to make social change, and force powerful and rich organizations to behave in an ethical and sustainable manner. Only through such efforts can the environment, its animals and its people be protected.

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