My Boycotts

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.

 

 

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20 comments on “My Boycotts

  1. Jeff says:

    Relevant Magazine …. relevant to the Ayn Rand sycophants. Never heard of the magazine before, but its philosophy is exactly what is wrong with main-stream Christianity. Social Darwinism, this is Christianity. Christianity, this is Social Darwinism. I hope there was some push-back against the “celebrity speaker at Wild Goose” who dissed the food movement!

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    • Bill says:

      Relevant is actually to the left of mainstream Christianity, in my opinion. I’d be surprised if they have many Ayn Rand sycophants among their readers. The comments on the article were largely in defense of “fair trade.” To be fair to the speaker at the Goose, she’s from San Francisco. What she experiences there won’t match what we experience in our world. But yeah, there was some push-back. 🙂

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      • Jeff says:

        1. Broken relationships: “Once we find ourselves in the same place as the panhandler on the street …” Say what??? Ain’t gonna happen.
        2. Respect the dignity of the poor: I’d submit there is a better way of “respecting” the “dignity” of the poor than by setting a monetary price on an item.
        3. Do your job well: Sure, while getting the shaft from The Man.
        4. Rethink Ethical Buying Habits: “…Instead of fair trade, he says free trade does more to lift nations out of poverty…” Straight out of Ayn Rand and the neo-con bible.

        Aaaaaaccckkk!! If Relevant Magazine is to the left of mainstream Christianity, then mainstream Christianity isn’t even Christian.

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  2. I’m happy to “know” someone who cares enough about ethics to have thought this through so articulately and who walks the walk.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks HC, but the walk I’m walking is a journey. I have a long ways to go. In the meantime, I refuse to believe we’re helpless and prefer to believe that we (collectively) have the power to make things right. Maybe I just like feeling that way, but it seems true to me.

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  3. shoreacres says:

    It’s not merely shopping for goods. It’s consuming, in a variety of ways. There are certain Hollywood stars whose movies I refuse to see, for an assortment of reasons. There are musicians I’ll support with dollars, and others I avoid like the plague, for reasons ranging from crude language to political stances.

    Am I a prude? Narrow-minded? No, not really. But I try to make conscious choices about what I take in, knowing that it affects who I am, whether I intend it or not.

    More closely related to your points about coffee and such is the history of Land’s End. I used to buy from them — a lot. They had some of the best work clothing in the world. It was well-made, of high-quality cloth, and it stood up to sunlight and sanders. Then, the company was sold to Sears. The quality quickly declined, and instead of being made in the USA, their clothing was made in Honduras, etc. It didn’t take much research to find out all I needed to know about the working conditions, or the scrimping on workers’ wages that went along with the scrimping on quality fabric. No more Land’s End for me.**

    ** I just found this article in Forbes about Sears’ spinoff of Land’s End. Once they become a stand-alone again, it will be interesting to see if their corporate practices change, and the quality of their clothing improves.

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    • Jeff says:

      Interesting article – after the “spin-off”, Edward Lambert, whose hedge fund owns Sears, will still own 48.4% of Land’s End. While Land’s End is now an independent company, they will still dance to the tune of Edward Lambert, since his hedge fund is a major shareholder. I wouldn’t expect much change in the quality of their clothing.

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    • Bill says:

      These days it’s nearly impossible to find anything made under conditions fair to workers. Most of the consumer goods we purchase come from China. Our clothing is usually made in sweatshops in places like Honduras. It’s very difficult to shop ethically, in my opinion.

      Maybe I’m being inconsistent, but I don’t boycott artists/performers based on their political or religious beliefs. I make a distinction between art and other commerce.

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      • shoreacres says:

        I’m not sure “boycott” is the right word for me, re: performers and such. But it’s a simple fact: if someone insists on foul language in their music, or a film star abuses women, or an author panders to the mass market, substituting violence and sex for good writing, I just don’t have time for it. Maybe what I’m really talking about is the old business of GIGO — garbage in , garbage out. Just as we need to be concerned about the food we eat, we need to be aware of the other ways we nourish ourselves. Some ways are good, some are bad, and I prefer to spend my money on the good. 😉

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      • Jeff says:

        Excellent point, shoreacres. GIGO case in point: TV, Facebook and Twitter. All are superficial distractions that steal valuable time that could be spent more profitably. Can they be used responsibly? Sure. Are they? No. Mind pollution.

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      • bobraxton says:

        replying to Jeff’s post:
        a case of the blog calling the Twitter black?

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  4. bobraxton says:

    how one uses money matters

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  5. EllaDee says:

    I thought the linked article from Relevant Magazine, and indeed all the articles I browsed were aimed low, but that is generally the nature of magazines
    You’ve summed up my thoughts on purchasing responsibiliy, and although I’m mostly comfortable with the choices I make, it’s not a perfect world, so sometimes I make the least harmful.

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    • Bill says:

      As much as I dislike intentionally choosing to support evil, sometimes we have no choice but to choose the lesser evil. I try to minimize that, but I haven’t figured out a way to eliminate it entirely.

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  6. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, I missed this post yesterday. I got up early and started the day before your post I suspect. Each person has to settle in their mind the right path to follow through the quagmire of our culture. It’s not just food but the entire life style that’s come into question. Corporate industries have gained a control on all aspects of our existence that’s difficult to circumvent. Government regulations make corporations conform to many things that I think are just wrong for the sake of being politically correct. So do we just throw up our hands and give up? Nope, that’s not my point. In my case, I’m am trying to live a life, as many others are who follow this blog, as best I can to lower the consumption of un needed stuff. The simplified lifestyle is the most uncomplicated, in my humble opinion.

    Have a great private boycott day.

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    • Bill says:

      I got off to a late start and didn’t get this post up until evening (which is rare for me).

      I agree with you about the simplified lifestyle. As we live more simply we can edit out these kinds of things from our lives.

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  7. avwalters says:

    I, too, have a number of criteria by which I make consumer decisions and I “boycott” those whose business ethics I cannot support. Often, consumer or political organizations suggest boycotts. More often, I already do not do business with the companies they suggest. Partly, I’m ahead of the curve, and partly, I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not terribly acquisitive. I figure that, if, when we shop, we do so in line with our convictions, that is more than half the battle. Also, that thinking interval between impulse and expenditure frequently teaches us we don’t “need” nearly as much as the ever pandering consumer world suggests.

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    • Bill says:

      We’re trying to opt out of consumerism, so we got rid of our TV years ago. That helps a lot. My wife used to enjoy magazines, but quit buying them. I rarely go into a store and when I do I try to go in already knowing what I intend to buy. The key, as you say, is to put a little distance between the desire to purchase and the purchase itself.

      Like you my boycotts tend to be personal. I’m not doing it as part of some organized effort. I’m just supporting what I want to support and refusing to support the things I don’t like. It really isn’t that complicated.

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  8. Steve says:

    Neat phone app: Buycott. It’s free. You set your standards, scan the bar codes of items and it let’s you know if there’s a conflict with your standards. I use it frequently because it’s impossible to know who owns what nowadays. Especiallly good at finding products sold by companies that pay for pro-gmo advertising. My daughter, 14, thinks it’s cool, so it must be!

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