I participate in lots of boycotts, most of them privately. That is to say I choose not to spend money on certain things or with certain companies for ethical reasons, whether there is an official organized boycott or not.
I believe that every time we spend money, in some sense we cast a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. So if we give money to a corporation in exchange for a piece of chocolate produced using child slaves, for example, then we have voted for child slavery. If we give money to corporations that profit from the torture and abuse of animals, then we have voted for the torture and abuse of animals. If we give money to a company that treats farmers unfairly, then we have voted for treating farmers unfairly. And so on.
I don’t think this way purely out of idealism, although I admit that is a factor. I see a very definite practical benefit to attempting to spend money ethically. Businesses exist to make profits. They choose the practices that are most profitable. If an attractive product can be produced cheaply using unethical means, then someone will do it. If they are successful in the marketplace, then their competitors will imitate the practice to avoid being driven out of business. That seems to me to be the reality.
But no matter how cheaply a product can be produced, the ultimate objective is to sell it. If, because the practices are perceived to be unethical, consumers don’t buy it, then the seller will change practices. The power to change unethical business practices therefore lies ultimately with the consumer.
Of course the question of what is unethical and what isn’t can be complicated and controversial. But I submit that most of the time the question of what is unethical really isn’t very complicated, even if we have the ability to rationalize our way around it. Even if we have enough information to determine whether a product was ethically produced, however, that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether it’s ethical to buy it. Maybe a person is too poor to be able to buy clothes made ethically. Maybe the good that can be done with electronics outweighs the fact that they’re made using blood minerals. Sometimes we have to choose the course that seems to be the least unethical.
I’ve been put to thinking about this because of an article from Relevant Magazine dismissing the importance of buying fair trade coffee and because of some remarks from a celebrity speaker at Wild Goose that could be construed as ridiculing the food movement. Should we just buy the cheapest coffee and let the free market settle things out? Should we even concern ourselves with how coffee companies treat farmers and farm workers? Does it really matter if food is organic? Are the ethics of the producers of the food relevant to the decision to purchase?
No doubt there are economists who can make the case that little boycotts like mine don’t change corporate behavior, or that the most just economic system is one in which purchasing decisions are made without regard to the values of the producer. If so, I don’t care. I’ve decided that price isn’t the only factor I’m going to consider when I buy something. I’ve decided that I’m not going to feel complicit in unjust and unethical systems of production, even at the risk of being merely naive. I may be wrong, but I don’t think I am. I’ve decided to believe that individual consumers have the power to change the world by the way they shop.