Boycott! A Do-It-Yourself Guide

Boycotts have been in the news lately, with the American Family Association, Southern Baptists, and other conservative groups boycotting Disney. Most of the news attention to their boycott has focused on merely announcing that they're boycotting, and announcing that Disney's profits have actually gone up during the boycott; apparently, the old adage that any publicity is good publicity still holds. But journalists who take this approach are jumping the gun in judging the boycott's effectiveness. Todd Putnam, who edited the now-defunct National Boycott News, says that "boycotts used to take between five and ten years to get results, but now they take about two. That's because they're better organized and get more media attention: Corporations recognize the damage potential much earlier." The Disney boycotts began last year, and conservative groups are still jumping on the bandwagon as they see more media attention directed towards the boycott. Even if Disney's sales never go down, the amount of media attention the boycotters have received means that their position has been broadcasted to the whole country. A counter-boycott announced by various religious groups, by comparison, hardly made the news at all.

Every dollar you spend is a vote for the product you buy with it, but it is also a vote for the company producing it, the company's politics, their method of manufacturing, and the way they treat their workers. We're taught to think that our votes don't count in a society of millions upon millions of other voters, but in fact each of us has tremendous power to change the world around us. By becoming aware of the policies and politics of different companies, we can choose to give power to the ones that respect the earth, donate money to organizations we support, treat their employees the way we would want to be treated. Such information is not terribly difficult to come by; many companies boast upon their packages that their product was made without cruelty to animals, or that the packaging is 100% post-consumer recycled paper. Once we've seen one such label, it throws similar products into question. Does the next brand of potato chip on the shelf also boast of the money it donates to literacy campaigns? Does the next package of cookies seem to contain way more unnecessary packaging than this one does? There are also many sites online and many magazines and newspapers available which will provide information to you about different companies' friendly or unfriendly practices, and notify you when some product is dangerously full of aspartame or particularly good for you. (see Resources, below.) The flip side of this tremendous power each consumer has to support a company is our power to stop a company's abuses in their tracks. Instead of simply buying the products we support, we can focus our dislike of other products into a very powerful activist tool: the boycott. A nationwide survey (Friedman, 1991) found that, of different consumer techniques, business leaders considered boycotts to be more effective than letter writing campaigns, lobbying, or even class action suits. A boycott may include any of those techniques, but those actions by themselves lack one important element: they don't attack sales. Money is the most important thing in the world to a company or any organization ÷you may want to boycott. They can fight you in court, ignore your letters, or wave away your lobbying, but when their sales start to drop, they have to do something about it. It forces them to notice you. The Boycott Action News says that "Boycotts are an effective way to put your money where your values are.... Boycotts are a tool for holding corporations accountable for actions against workers, consumers, communities, minorities, animals and the environment." So how do we go about doing that? This is the kind of thing you should put on a web page or an email organizing a boycott: • Be aware of what your goals are. Do you want to get the company to reverse its policies, or just make it aware of its opposition? Do you want a reply from the organization you're attacking, or would it be enough just to’ get media attention? Usually, your goals will depend on the size and strength of your group; if you're relatively small and unknown, or trying to create a grassroots boycott in your community, you may want to be satisfied with getting noticed and letting bigger groups take up your cause. • Do not buy the product. Usually boycotts are aimed against a business or corporation for its actions, so simply not buying the product may not be enough; you might choose to boycott everything made by that manufacturer, and tell them so. On the other hand, an effective and wide-ranging boycott of just one product can be easier for them to compare to their other sales, as long as you let them know why their sales have dropped. Write a letter to the company explaining why they're being boycotted. Email works as well, but physical letters, faxes, and sometimes phone calls work best. If you are the boycott's organizer, or head of a group supporting the boycott, and want your letter or information packet to really be noticed, place it inside a box, inside another box, inside a third box, wrap nicely, and send to the company head. It will be noticed. Make sure to look as official as possible; do not use your own personal letterhead if you represent an organization or the boycott itself, and do not leave spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected. You want to be taken as seriously as possible. If you are not one of the boycott's organizers, send copies of your letter to them, and encourage others to do the same. •Find alternatives to the product or organization you're boycotting. Make sure you know exactly which companies and subsidiaries you need to avoid, and then do the necessary research to make sure that the alternatives aren't worthy of boycott themselves. For example, boycotting Exxon for their low environmental standards can be effective, but if you simply transfer your business to another company who is also responsible for oil spills or mining on Native American lands, your message becomes less clear, and you're still supporting the actions you wish to end. • Form alliances with other groups. Find out who might have similar bon 4es to pick, and ask them to join you in a boycott. If you're boycotting someone for environmental reasons, you could contact the Rainforest Action Network, EarthFirst!, or Greenpeace; if you're boycotting a country or political group that's commited religious discrimination, contact other religious groups within and without your religious path, the ACLU, or FIRE. Past Boycott Victories: Buy Nothing Day Buy Nothing Day originated in Vancouver, Canada, on September 24, 1992. Approaching its five-year anniversary, Buy Nothing Day is just that: a day to abstain from buying anything, meant to "remind both the consumer and the retailer of the true power of the buying public," according to its web page at Buy Nothing Day is held every September 24th, and has become a planet-wide holiday fr 4om the insanity of capitalism and consumerism. The author describes it as "a reclamation of consumer control of the marketplace. It is a gesture of protest for those of us who all too often feel as if our lives and dreams have been marketed back to us. It is an across-the-board boycott of a system that isn't working." According to an article in The News, Buy Nothing Day was not heavily publicized but still managed to get "reports by Associated Press, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the Los Angeles Times, the Vancouver Sun and the Vancouver Province, not to mention countless university and independent publications and a great deal of word of mouth." Buy Nothing Day's creator, Ted Dave, suggests that "The best promotion for Buy Nothing Day would be to have a Buy Nothing Day Sale the day before." Other Resources Co-op America produces a ten-page "Boycott Organizer's Guide" for $2.00. The guide includes a history of boycotts, advice on choosing a target, getting community support, and winning media attention, and case studies of successful boycotts. To order publications send a check with the title to Co-op America, 1612 K St. NW, Suite 600 Washington, DC 20006. Boycott Victories (reprinted from Boycott Action News) PepsiCo Withdraws from Burma PepsiCo, Inc., the $30 billion soft drinks giant, has confirmed its intention to withdraw completely from the Southeast Asian dictatorship of Burma, reports the Free Burma Coalition. Citing "the spirit of current U.S. government foreign policy" as its motivation, PepsiCo "severed all relationships" with its Burmese bottler, effective January 15; distribution of Pepsi products by the bottler will cease by May 31. Pepsi had long been a boycott target of the Free Burma Coalition because of the close ties between its Burmese bottler and the ruling military junta, widely condemned for its human rights violations and suppression of democracy. Meanwhile, the Free Burma Coalition reports a handful of oil companies are still doing business in Burma: Unocal, ARCO, Texaco and Total of France. Just days after PepsiCo announced its withdrawal from Burma, Unocal and Total signed new contracts with the military government to develop pipelines across the country.