Does boycotting companies really help your cause?

It seems like I’ve received way more than my fair share of boycott emails – particularly those attempting to address grievances with large corporations.  Wal-Mart is the poster child for this kind of stuff. 

  • Wal-Mart doesn’t pay their employees enough – boycott them!
  • Wal-Mart has a homosexual agenda, and forces sensitivity training on their employees – boycott them!
  • Wal-Mart doesn’t say “Merry Christmas” – boycott them!
  • Wal-Mart is an evil big corporation whose executives make too much – boycott them!
  • Wal-Mart is destroying little towns by closing down main street – boycott them!
  • Wal-Mart sells stuff made only in China – boycott them!

It goes on and on.  And I have a headache.  More importantly, though, I have a question … should we really be reacting by calling for boycotts every time a large company like Wal-Mart doesn’t do what we would do personally?  I’m sure you’ve picked up that I think the answer’s “no”.  Here are a couple thoughts as to why…

First, an aside…  The “evil big corporations” aren’t really so evil, in my mind.  They create unbelievable numbers of jobs, and generate massive wealth for a lot of people (employees and stock holders alike).  They bring cheap goods and services to people from all walks of life, all over the world, mostly benefiting the poor.  And the tax revenues they generate are enormous.  There’s a reason towns fight over who gets the Wal-Mart (my little home town just went through that).  Many companies, like Wal-Mart, also bring significant improvements with them when they come into new areas as well.  And they are a far more pwerful vehicle for personal retirement planning than Social Security will ever be.

Corporations obviously have downsides too (some of which are motivation enough for calls to boycott in some peoples’ minds).  Executives are taking larger and larger salaries in comparison to the common worker, which is driving a huge (and unnecessary) wedge between laborers and management.  As a result, unions are formed with an increasingly adversarial perspective.  This – in my mind – could be totally avoided if business leaders knew how to take care of their employees better, were a bit more generous, actually valued the people that are making them all their money, etc.   Many corporations are careless about the environment and try to dominate the political process by funneling big money into the pockets of legislators who will help them get their way.  This obviously turns the public against them, which could also be avoided if they were more conscientious.  I’ve never understood why business leaders don’t pony up more money for important causes like protecting the environment, taking care of workers who get hurt on the job, voluntarily making sure wages are livable, etc.  Even if they were the most selfish people on earth, don’t they realize that it’s in their own best interest? … to say nothing of the fact that these kinds of things will be forced on them by government anyway, if they don’t do them voluntarily?

But I digress…  The argument for or against “big business” aside, I really don’t put much stock in the (seemingly constant) calls for boycotts…

  1. Boycotts don’t work.  No matter how well-intentioned the person calling for the boycott is, 9 times out of 10 it fails.  Why?  Because the bottom line is that the general public is far too lazy and/or apathetic to enforce a boycott.  Nobody gets on board.  The theory is nice – that business follows the money and if we withold the money, then they’ll listen to us – but the money always keeps coming no matter how loud the call is for a boycott.  You have to have a really famous, really unifying figure calling for the boycott to overcome this, and even then it’s touch-and-go.
  2. The issues aren’t as clear-cut as they’d like you to believe.  A big company like Wal-Mart is doing so much in so many parts of the world, that it’s almost guaranteed you won’t like some practice somewhere.  Action groups are famous for zeroing in on one thing a company’s doing in one specific place in the world, and making it the representative trait of the business.  Classic example…  I just had a friend send me a “Boycott Wal-Mart because they’re promoting a gay agenda” email.  One day later, a different person responded “Don’t boycott Wal-Mart because they’re encouraging their employees to say ‘Merry Christmas'”.  So which one is it?  I view this kinda like political correctness…  If your goal is to never offend anyone, then you’re going to have to lock yourself in a dark closet on a desert island, because it’s just not possible.  (And in truth, even that would offend someone.)  It’s a game you can’t win, and Wal-Mart would be a fool to play it.
  3. Boycotts turn off the mainstream.  Every time the general public gets wind of an organization boycotting someone, their “stock goes down” a bit.  It seems to me that these organizations are hurting their image by constantly having problems with some company somewhere.  Doesn’t that render an action group somewhat ineffectual, in that they’ve marginalized themselves (in the eyes of the average American) to the status of “nutjob fanatic”? 
  4. Find a more effective forum for your angst.  I don’t think boycotts are effective.  I think they’re hard to navigate, because the issues are hardly ever black-and-white.  I think they turn people off.  For all these reasons, I think activists would better serve themselves and others to get more directly involved in the culture war.  If you believe there’s a prevailing homosexual agenda in the culture, then leave Wal-Mart alone, work on reforming the education system, and win the hearts and minds of the people.  Wal-Mart is just responding to where they think the money is – which is their role as a for-profit business.  Etc.

Okay, I’m all ears.  What do you all think?

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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2 Responses to Does boycotting companies really help your cause?

  1. Neva says:

    I think you’re right that boycotts are rarely as productive as the people organizing them would like them to be. Maybe if it’s a particularly large organization with a specific cause that most people support there’s a shot, but even so I agree that apathy and convenience usually trump righteous indignation. People are willing to scream and shout about a cause, but when it comes to changing their daily routine…

    That being said, I do tend to avoid or support certain companies because I do or don’t like what they’re doing. I don’t consider it a boycott, just choosing as a consumer to give my money to companies I’d prefer to see prosper. I do tend to avoid Walmart, although not for any of the reasons you listed. I simply think that much of what they sell is low-quality to match the low prices, and I’d rather spend my money on products that will last. Also, I believe that their obviously successful business model is driving down quality across the board as other stores try to compete, so I don’t want to encourage that practice any more than I have to.
    As for supporting companies that I do like, I will definitely switch all of my grocery shopping to whatever store in my area I can nag into carrying grass-fed beef. That’s a case where I’d be willing to pay more to support a principle (and I can get into reasons if anyone here is interested, but otherwise I’ll avoid my soapboxes on Jeff’s blog).

    But, to get back on topic, I think that people are rarely willing to pay more or go out of their way for boycott type objections to usually vague corporate policies. Also, most email calls for boycotts are based on false or distorted information (check for some examples), so I wouldn’t be inclined to believe or join one even if I did agree with the cause they were supporting.


  2. Brad Bull says:

    I agree, boycotts are called for too often and for typically minor reasons.

    Jeff you made many points about corporations not doing things they should be doing. Things in everyones best interest. But what alternative do people have to change corporate behavior. To get companies to be better stewards of the environment and to treat their employee’s better. My only thought is lobbying congress. Another though is that a call for a boycott brings publicity onto an issue. The call may be more for spreading awareness than anything else.

    I also agree that the “evil corporation” mentality is pretty dumb.


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