It was the year 1880. Charles Boycott was in charge of the management of the lands of a powerful Irish landowner, Lord Erne in the Lough Mask area of County Mayo. Charles exploited and abused the farmers to the limit. He was aggressive, petty and arrogant. That year, harvests were heavily spoiled and the peasants, with barely anything to eat, called for a reduction in rents. Mr. Boycott refused and tried to serve eviction notices to those who protested. The farmers joined, rebelled and agreed not to work with him. The revolt soon included the local businesses who, in solidarity, turned their backs on the tyrant. In the end, they succeeded, even the postman joined the protest and stopped bringing Boycott his correspondence. The rest is history. The Times coined Boycott’s last name to describe a protest tactic, one more than still emerges as an important political weapon more century later. Boycott became a verb and the despicable symbol of collective activism.
Nowadays, a new mode of political activism has emerged, the reverse modality of boycott: The Buycott, which is, actively buying products that respect certain values or ethics in order to generate a movement towards fairer production processes, both from an environmental and human point of view. Today, consumer activism not only focuses on stop buying a certain product or brand but on making conscious, ethical purchases. These two behaviors, both active and passive, integrate what is known as conscious consumption or political consumption. But can we change a corporation’s behavior with our wallets? And, as buyers how powerful are we?
From the #GrabYourWallet movement to the #DeleteUber controversy, buycotts have become the most effective form of political activism. Consumers are taking an ethical stance towards their spending more than ever before in history. Political consumerism is on the rise and presents an opportunity to bring serious social justice issues to the marketplace. A new report from Weber Shandwick shows that buycotts are slowly overtaking boycotts as the preferred method of consumer activism. The study found that 83 percent of consumer activists agree that is it more important to show support for companies by buying from them, rather than participating in boycotts. Yet, could buycotts really shape a company’s reputation?
In the last two years, and with the strong influence of social media, buycott campaigns have proliferated across the web. Companies, like New Balance or Starbucks are just some of the few corporations that have recently been embroiled in consumer activist events and have seen how their businesses have gotten caught in social justice ‘traps’. With the emergence of social media political consumerism in the form of buycotts have found an arena for citizens to quickly and actively engage online to potentially influence the marketplace.
These market-based politically efforts acknowledge the individual consumption imbued with political beliefs, ethics, or principles. The ultimate goal of buycotting is to stimulate “good sales” and bring social change. A form of advocacy that has become quite popular in the last two years and since the election of Donald Trump where series of buycotts have been launched to support companies that are against the President’s policies while boycotting those that he has openly endorsed.
Nathan Larner, executive director at the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, told Forbes “People are realizing that they have a vote every day with their purchasing power, and they can take a stand with how they spend their money […] By boycotting companies that are supporters of Trump, consumers can hurt Trump and his allies where it hurts most — their wallets”
To some sociologists, political consumerism in the form of buycott is not bad for the economy because people tend to buy more products and services from brands that support minority rights, environmental quality, and display transparency in their labor practices. In December 2017 when sportswear brand Patagonia blacked out its website with the message “The President Stole Your Land,” after Trump decided to reduce the size of two monuments in Utah, their external web sales increased by a multiple of six according to data from Slice Intelligence. In Trump’s America it pays off, literally, to be part of the #resistance.
With the aim of becoming a better, more aware, and conscious consumer buycott helps citizens make mindful, sustainable decisions about their purchases. A clear example of this is buying products that are produced under fair trade agreements or where the welfare of workers and animals has been guaranteed.
Is the food we are eating genetically modified? Are the beauty products we use tested on animals? Do the clothes we wear come from sweatshops, made by companies that don’t support human rights? Has our clothing been manufactured through child labor? These are relevant questions every consumer should take into consideration before swiping their credit cards.
Moreover, when we buy products that have been ethically manufactured, we are demanding fair prices for producers in developing countries too. We are also sending an important message to governments and decision makers: we demand a model that respects human rights and the environment. For us, the purchase ticket is like a ballot, that acts as a direct vote. Ethical consumerism now represents an important shift towards demanding higher standards from businesses. Consumerism, then, becomes a new form of civic engagement.
Yet, what has changed that regular citizens have decided to wage war on companies on their own? Michele Micheletti, the most prominent academic researcher on the topic, says that individualized collective action and political participation have shifted away from its traditional structures and have become the sum of individualism, social justice, and ethical capitalism.
While buycotts may help citizens stay engage, there’s the risk that its influence could become a mere substitute for a more active engagement and advocacy though. In addition, ethical and green trends seen as ‘fashionable’ are prone to become part of the marketing apparatus. Companies trying to take advantage of consumers’ ethical intentions may use the figure of political activism for profit. This is where the good intentions of many “buycotters”, who do not have the time to inform themselves properly, could end up in giving money to the same type of businesses that they intend to avoid and fight in the first place. Ethics becomes part of the capitalist aesthetic, rather than an integral part of it.
Also, ethical consumerism, often determined by higher levels of political interest and lower levels of trust in the government, is not always available to everyone, as authors Lisa A. Neilson and Pamela Paxton argue in their study “Social Capital and Political Consumerism,” “only individuals in societies with greater social capital are more likely to be political consumers than individuals in societies with lower social capital.” That’s why it is imperative and crucial for governments and policymakers to implement programs to teach and research ethical consumption in order to include different racial and ethnic groups, because unfortunately consumer activism is still, quite selective and discriminatory as people who tend to engage in forms of political participation are most likely to be educated, white and wealthier than non-political consumers.
In the meantime, to further understand the future of political consumerism we need to ask the following questions: Will businesses keep adjusting their practices to better match the demands of the market? Will these efforts make some large companies be more politically responsive in the long run? And Will ethical consumerism become just another ephemeral trend?
By continuing to engage in acts of buycott, consumers can support admirable or reject objectionable marketplace practices while bringing social change every time they take out their wallets. Only time will tell if movements like these are here to stay or a just a temporary symptom of our current times.