The Consumer Activist’s Guide to Boycotting.

This is a spin-off blog to Emmily’s previous blog about sexist ads. Mainly covering overtly sexual ads for cologne, her blog “These Misogynist Ad Boys Can Suck It!” brought up the valid point that we “can’t boycott everything.”

Indeed, we can’t. We have to buy lattes, crappy plastic products, gas, wine, tuna, home goods and cologne SOMEWHERE.

This is something I continually grapple with – do I buy my latte from Starbucks, or down the street at the indy coffee shop? Does it still count as boycotting big business if that indy coffee shop fills their espresso makers with ‘corporate coffee’ anyway? Should I not buy gas on that one day, or just avoid Exxon altogether? By snubbing Wal-Mart and opting for Target instead – which just happens to be 10x cooler than Wal-Mart anyway – aren’t I just taking my buck from one big hand and giving it to another?

Plus, are they even paying attention? Corporations are so huge it seems like snatching away my dollar won’t count for much – and therefore my two cents really count for, like, no cents.

Here’s the bottom line: When does boycotting make the most sense?

Lucky for us, CoOp America (an awesome NPO that focuses on building a fair, sustainable economic future) has put together a Boycott Organizers Guide that gives important insight into this business of boycotting. I’ve taken some of their tips for organizers and rephrased them in a way that will enlighten plain ol’ consumer activists like you and me.

First, a definition from Merriam Webster: To boycott is “to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with (as a person, store or organization) usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions.”

Examples: the Rainforest Action Network’s boycott of Home Depot that stopped them from clearcutting old growth forests; Earth Island Institute’s boycott of Starkist Tuna for killing dolphins, United Farm Workers’ table grape boycott for worker rights, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, American Revolution’s Boston Tea Party.

And now, I bring you:

THE CONSUMER ACTIVIST’S GUIDE TO BOYCOTTS:

1: Organization and Strategy

Any boycott worth joining will be organized and include a clearly defined goal. This means it will have a timeline, guidelines, strong leadership and a message to the offending company with a request for a CLEAR and VIABLE policy change.

Take, for example, Wal-Mart. We all know the evils of Wal-Mart: poor working conditions at all ends, bullying of merchants and small businesses, environmental what-have-you. In many consumers’ minds – my own included – Wal-Mart is all around bad news, which equals “Well, I’m not shopping there.”

But that’s a whole lot of demands to put on a company. This isn’t exactly a structured, organized boycott. The only definable goal, as laid out in emails sent to folks like me, is to STOP Wal-Mart. This is obviously not a “viable” policy change – to Wal-Mart, the entity that a boycott is supposed to be confronting.

For another example, consider the oft-emailed “Don’t buy gas on this date” call to arms. They’ve got the timeline down, and there are pretty clear and simple guidelines. But who’s running this boycott, anyway? Is anyone keeping track of who has vowed to join the thing, so they can tell the offending corporations and make an impact? Negative.

2. Convenience

Are there alternatives? How easy will it be to stop buying this particular brand, or going to that store? I’m not saying don’t go out of your way to make a difference. But keep in mind that not everyone will be as passionate and motivated as you. So take a look around to make sure you’re not just joining a handful of people, scattered out across the nation, inconveniencing themselves for no good reason. A small-scale boycott against a large corporation isn’t going to get the wheels of change a-rollin.

3. Timeline

People get discouraged if they don’t see change right away. Boycotting something for years, particularly if it’s something ubiquitous like Starbucks or McDonalds, can feel exhausting and worthless. If a movement you’re considering doesn’t include a clear timeline – such as requesting a company to change their policies by a certain date, or not buying gas for that day to send a message – then request more information from the boycott organizers.

4. Involvement

How many people will be joining this boycott? Boycotting is a ‘power of the people’ strategy; there’s simply more oomph behind having a lot of people involved. Especially when you’re up against a billion-dollar corporation – which most are these days. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons people refrain from joining a boycott is because they’re unsure about whether others will too. If the campaign you’re considering is something you really believe in, you can remedy the issue of low involvement by telling your friends about the boycott, posting about it in a blog, or passing out fliers and whatnot. Let people know that you fully intend to participate.

We all have to decide for ourselves how best to vote with our dollar. We live in complicated times – it’s not as cut and dry as knowing something is wrong and changing it. We know everything is wrong; we can only change so much at once!

As Emmily said before, we can’t boycott everything. Don’t be afraid to be choosy. Myself, I casually boycott Wal-Mart and totally boycott animal agriculture. I don’t expect much to come on Wal-Mart’s end from my refusal to buy their products. But I’ve seen the animal ag boycott gain steam, and that’s encouraging. Plus, I know that taking on an industry isn’t going to bring instant change, so I was prepared to be a vegetarian for the long haul when I made the decision. I know what to expect from these two boycotts. Plus, they’re manageable for me. After some initial inconvenience and getting used to the changes, I’m comfortable with them.

So, what’s manageable and comfortable for you?

(Check out coopamerica.org, or their boycott page for more info.)

— Natalie

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