Christian activist: Let us boycott
Poor old Charles Cunningham Boycott. While Wellington bequeathed us his rubbery boot, the Earl of Sandwich his portable bread-based victuals, and Molotov his cocktail (writing as one who has made one, let me warn you that they’re pretty much undrinkable), Boycott unwittingly donated his name to a form of protest famously practiced against him.
An agent for an absentee landlord in County Mayo, Boycott was so comprehensively shunned by the local community that within months he was forced to leave the area without having carried out the convictions of tenant farmers his employer Lord Erne had ordered. Huzzah! The new-fangled “Boycotts” spread around Ireland and have been with us in one form or another ever since.
Burrow down to the marrow of any activist today and you’ll find engraved there an ever-expanding list of companies, corporations and even whole countries they have chosen to boycott. The first one I myself could call my own was of Nestlé in response to its aggressive marketing of baby milk formula to mothers in the third world (to give the developing world its 1990 moniker). Since then, I’ve added Tesco, Coca-Cola (and Pepsi, for good measure), McDonald’s, Starbucks, Gillette and a whole host of other ne’er-do-wells to my mental blacklist, the most recent inclusion being Amazon (for their tax-dodging activities).
Now, to me this is all a natural part of life: the flipside of being on the side of the angels. Over the years it has also afforded some relief from the cognitive dissonance borne of enthusiastic acceptance of every word of a sermon on social justice followed by the purchase on the way home of something responsible for some heinous social injustice. Spurred on further by Bad Samaritans, Paul Vallely’s excoriating attack on the so-called ethics of the first world (we loved our ordinal numbers back then), my personal boycotts were the first steps into a world of campaigning that eventually led me to a lengthy stint as a human rights reporter.
But am I being hilariously naïve in imagining that my 20 years or so of abstinence from various products and services has made the blindest bit of difference? Well, yes and no. Obviously, my own ha’pennyworth isn’t much to speak of, but when added to the similar actions of many others, it’s had an impact. In 2009, Kellogg professor Brayden King studied boycotts of 144 companies and found that even though the effect on sales was relatively minor, the reputation of some corporations took such a hit that it forced them to mend their ways as a means of damage limitation.
Take Nestlé, for example. In 2010, Greenpeace launched a campaign against Kit Kats because the palm oil in them came from areas whose deforestation was threatening the orangutan. It took just two months for the global food giant to crumble and institute new purchasing policies monitored by the Forest Trust. (It’s just a shame that the pressure group Baby Milk Action is still uncovering shady practices when it comes to Nestlé’s marketing of baby milk formulas, but that’s another battle.) Meanwhile, clothing company Fruit of the Loom found itself the target of a well-coordinated student boycott. It duly re-opened a Honduran factory and re-employed all 1,200 workers it had sacked when they unionised themselves. They also handed out $2.5m in compensation.
However, I realise that my love of a good boycott is not one shared by everyone. To some, I appear as a man astride a high horse attempting to colonise the moral high ground by the combined force of my holier-than-thou ways and a phalanx of mixed metaphors. Some Christians see participation in boycotts as overtly political and as such, not quite nice, or liable to entrench the image of the Church as “forever being against things”. This latter view has some validity in light of recent pronouncements on gay marriage, women bishops et al, but that still doesn’t prevent individuals from carrying out their own private boycotts. However, I suspect that, for many Christians, the main reason why they don’t get involved in boycotts is that – though they might not care to admit it – ethical considerations come a distant second to personal convenience. I’ve even been told by Christians (more than once as it happens) that they couldn’t give up Nescafé “because no other coffee tastes quite the same”.
Frankly it’s their loss for, aside from any moral dimensions, boycotting can be a positive, dare I say, joyous experience. Finding alternative sources for foodstuffs, clothing, energy and the like can lead one to companies and individuals who are doing tremendously inspiring things and whose work you can support simply by diverting your resources. And, hey, every so often a boycott succeeds and you get to make the world a better place.
Dixe Wills is a journalist and author. His latest book is Tiny islands (AA, 2013)
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.
Read more articles by Dixe Wills