Natural Life Magazine

Ask Natural Life:
Buycotts: Can Ethical Consumerism Create a Better Society?

by Wendy Priesnitz

buycotts, boycotts, and ethic consumerism
Photo © Junial Enterprises/Shutterstock

Q: What is a “buycott” and is it an effective tool for creating a greener, saner world?

A: “Buycotting” is the opposite of boycotting. It is a positive activist tool that leverages consumer power to make the most socially-responsible business practices also the most profitable choices for companies.

Whereas a boycott is a punishment of a company for negative behavior (think formula maker Nestlé), a buycott is a positive reward to a company for good behavior and a carrot to promote change. It works on the understanding that corporations have profit as their top priority and, rather than rage against that, buycotts work with it to make responsibility the most profitable choice.

You might think of buycotting as the formalization of actions already being taken by many Natural Life Magazine readers – that is, taking responsibility for our consumer choices based upon ethical, environmental, social, and political criteria. Such ethical shopping is increasingly aided by certification programs, like “organic” and Fair Trade, and their accompanying labels. It can be done individually or in a group.

A good example of group buycotting is the activity undertaken by Carrotmob. This social enterprise solicits businesses to compete with one another to see who can do the most good, and then sends a big mob of consumers to buy their products and thereby reward whichever business made the strongest commitment to improve the world. So, instead of wielding a big stick (petitions, boycotts, lawsuits…), they use the carrot of improved reputation, market exposure and, therefore, increased profit to encourage the participating companies to create positive change.

Buycotting has also been used in a more political way as an anti-boycott. An example is the Fair Play Campaign Group, which fights politically-motivated boycotts of Israel and Israeli businesses. They promote doing exactly the opposite of what the boycotters want – buying more Israeli goods. Another example is the National Tea Party Coalition’s organization of a one-day buycott last fall in support of Whole Foods after a boycott against the chain in reaction to CEO John Mackey’s opposition to the ObamaCare bill.

Buycotting was also used in Palermo, Italy, where an anti-mafia civic effort used a fair-trade certification type process to identify businesses that had refused to pay a bribe and to encourage customers to shop there.

Is this sort of consumer activism effective? Can shopping really change the world? Lawrence B. Glickman, who teaches American history at the University of South Carolina and authored Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (University of Chicago Press, 2009), thinks not, aside from drawing attention to problems. He says that although North Americans boycott and buycott regularly, very few of these campaigns succeed. “The use of coordinated economic pressure rarely forces companies to change policies, or politicians to alter positions,” he writes. On the other hand, consumer boycotts of South Africa over apartheid are credited with contributing to the fall of the white regime.
Can shopping really change the world? Probably not, other than through its power to draw attention to problems.

And the fact remains that ethical consumption is still consumption. Most definitely purchase organic, ethical, fairly traded, locally produced, etc. whenever you can. But be sure the purchase is even necessary because decreasing levels of consumption are preferable to ethical consumption. In other words, don’t justify your purchase of an iPod with the reassurance that, according to the marketing campaign, you’ll be helping finance the battle against AIDS in Africa.

In 2005, there was a campaign attempting to organize a buycott of gasoline retailer Citgo, which is headquartered in Venezuela. The suggestion was that by buying their gas, you would be contributing “to the billions of dollars that Venezuela’s democratic government is using to provide health care literacy and education, and subsidized food for the majority of Venezuelans.” In reality, however, there are questions about that country’s democracy and the origin of the gas that Citgo sells. In commenting on the email campaign, Barbara and David Mikkelson of the debunking website concluded: “Complex problems rarely lend themselves to simple, painless answers. Simply shifting where we buy gasoline isn’t nearly as good a solution as the much tougher choice of sharply curtailing the amount of gasoline we buy.”

"Have we, with our ethical cars and condoms and carrots, found a way to make markets humane? Or have we rather found a way to make politics bearable to us by turning it into shopping?"

Sometimes, attempts to find simple, painless answers can create a massive headache for well-intentioned consumers. For instance, single issue activism can be problematic, which happened when a boycott collided with a buycott a few years ago. Many supporters of the long-standing Nestlé boycott over its infant formula marketing are the same people who support fair trade products. But life became a bit more complicated when Nestlé created a fair trade coffee brand. While it may seem like a victory to have a large multinational aboard the fair trade bandwagon, many people saw the move as a cynical attempt to cash in on a consumer trend by demonstrating token support for fair trade principles rather than making any fundamental changes to its business practices.

Indeed, it isn’t easy to separate out the greenwashing and political correctness from the legitimate improvements businesses might make, in spite of a plethora of labels. The average consumer doesn’t have the time, energy or knowledge to figure out if the high price they’re paying for apparently sweatshop-free clothing is actually trickling down to the workers or if a new brand of dish soap is truly organic and packaged in recycled plastic.

We also wonder if “market citizenship” as some critics call it, has become a substitute for real civic engagement. The increase in buycotting, petitions, signing on to Facebook “campaigns” and other relatively low demand activities coincides with a decrease in voter turnouts and membership in traditional activist organizations like political parties, NGOs, and trade unions.

In a widely quoted article published at last October, writer Anand Giridharadas called ethical consumerism (including buycotting) “boycotts minus the pain.”

“The question,” he wrote, “is this: Have we, with our ethical cars and condoms and carrots, found a way to make markets humane? Or have we rather found a way to make politics bearable to us by turning it into shopping?”

Buycotting, like all types of ethical consumerist practices, has an important role to play in greening society. But it is just one tool in a whole kit of tools for social and environmental change. We absolutely promote an increased awareness of the impact of our purchasing decisions on the environment and on health and life in general. But it must part of a larger change in personal behavior and lifestyle, rather than an occasional activity. And it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for other types of political engagement.

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life's editor and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. This article was published in 2010.


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