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Think before you boycott: There are consequences

Robert Chandler, who no longer shops at Amazon.com, teaches guitar in Wareham.
Robert Chandler, who no longer shops at Amazon.com, teaches guitar in Wareham.(Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)

Music teacher Robert Chandler won’t shop at Amazon.com.

He used to order sheet music and guitar strings from the online retailer, but then he learned that the company streams programming from the National Rifle Association as part of its video offerings. Chandler simply can’t stomach the idea that his money could help fund pro-gun sentiments.

Not after serving in Vietnam and seeing the damage such weapons can do, he says. Not after the shootings in Parkland, Fla.

“There are certain things I am just so opposed to,” said Chandler, a Wareham resident. “It is important that our kids should be saved, that’s the bottom line for me.”

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The boycott is an old strategy for pushing change. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was an essential part of the Civil Rights movement, and anti-apartheid boycotts helped take down a racist system in South Africa. Some even call the Boston Tea Party the original American boycott.

Today, calls to boycott major companies make headlines and Facebook feeds every day. Social media is mobilizing vocal opponents of President Trump, people on both sides of the gun control issue, #MeToo activists, and other concerned consumers, making it easier for them to organize campaigns to vote with their wallets. Just recently, there have been calls for a boycott of Starbucks following the arrest of two black men who were sitting in one of the chain’s Philadelphia shops. But one of those men, Rashon Nelson, told the Associated Press that he doesn’t believe a Starbucks boycott would be productive.

The premise of boycotting may be simple, but doing it in a way that is both effective and ethical can require both research and introspection.

They can make a difference

High-impact boycotts don’t generally work by causing a direct financial impact through lost sales, said Timothy Werner, associate professor at the McCombs Business School at the University of Texas in Austin. Instead, the most effective campaigns raise a ruckus that companies are eager to tamp down.

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A boycott could draw investors’ attention to potentially risky practices or policies, lowering a company’s stock price, Werner said. The negative attention could make it harder for a business to strike deals or cause lenders to charge higher interest rates.

“Boycotts can inflict reputation damage on a firm with long-term political or economic consequences,” Werner said.

Pay attention to consequences

To be truly ethical, boycotters should consider not just the morality of the companies they target, but also the ripple effects of their choices, said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of practical ethics at Duke University.

He pointed to a common case: a clothing company that uses so-called sweatshop labor in a foreign country. Would-be boycotters might bemoan the low pay and working conditions employees experience, but the wages Americans find objectionable often represent a significant income in an impoverished region, Sinnott-Armstrong noted. If a boycott successfully shut down one of these operations, he asked, would the workers really be better off?

“Ask whether your boycott is going to do any good,” he said. “The main goal should be to help people who are in need and whose rights are being violated.”

Furthermore, consider whether shifting your shopping is really the best way to declare your values with your money. Instead of boycotting Amazon and spending more elsewhere, Sinnott-Armstrong suggested, it might make more sense to continue buying from the online retailer and donate the money you save to organizations fighting for the cause you believe in.

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Get loud

If you join a boycott, make some noise. The impact of boycotts is directly related to their ability to attract media attention, said Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University.

“Journalists will cover a story that has a good plot to it,” he said.

Choose boycotts with potential to get noticed

One example: #GrabYourWallet, founded in 2016 to oppose then-candidate Trump. Today, it operates an online list identifying boycott targets — including retailers that carry Trump products, companies whose leadership supports Trump, and services that stream NRA programming. Perhaps most importantly for effective boycotting, the group has gotten traction with the media.

“People have seen the power they have as consumers and they want to continue to flex it,” said campaign founder Shannon Coulter. “The boycott is still going strong.”

Once you commit to a boycott, spread the news. Post on Facebook, explain your position to friends, and, most important, let the company know what you are doing and why — it can’t get better if it doesn’t know what consumers want.

Reward change

Don’t hold a grudge once you win. Rochester resident Halima Tiffany usually shops for outdoor goods at REI or Patagonia, but she has decided to give Dick’s Sporting Goods a chance after the chain announced it would stop selling assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“I might walk into a Dick’s store now — I hadn’t in ages,” Tiffany said.

In fact, the boycott strategy only works if there is an implied promise that things will go back to normal if the company makes a concession.

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This premise is central to #GrabYourWallet, Coulter said.

The campaign’s list includes a section noting companies that have been removed from the boycott list after changing their practices. The Honest Co. for example, was taken off after agreeing not to advertise on any future seasons of “The Apprentice,” and Nordstrom was removed after dropping Ivanka Trump’s fashion brands.

“We emphasize movement off the list, versus a name-and-shame approach,” she said. “You have to give your opponent a way to evolve.”

The question, of course, remains: Will the current wave of boycotts jumpstart wide-reaching change, or simply fizzle and fade like others have before them?

Chandler, the anti-Amazon consumer, is hopeful.

“Maybe me as one person can’t really make a dent,” he said. “But I also have faith that eventually the voices will be heard.”


Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.