OPINION
04/25/2018 03:13 pm ET

Your Boycott Might Fail, But You Should Do It Anyway

Protesters gather on April 15 at the Philadelphia Starbucks location where two black men were arrested days earlier.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Protesters gather on April 15 at the Philadelphia Starbucks location where two black men were arrested days earlier.

After Philadelphia police officers arrested two black men for “trespassing” at a local Starbucks, many have called for a boycott of the chain under the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has issued a public apology, and the company will close thousands of stores on May 29 for “racial bias education.” Yet many consumers are still not satisfied.

Boycotts are usually financial in nature. People participate by refusing to buy products from or otherwise financially support a business or corporation. Thus, a boycott is more than a mere verbal (or digital) protest. Boycotters put their money where their mouth is. Within the last year, people have called for a boycott of the clothing store H&M over a racist ad campaign, and Uber over its CEO’s ties to the Trump administration. More recently, some have called for a boycott of Waffle House in response the violent arrest of a black woman at the chain on Sunday.

These calls raise ethical questions for progressive consumers. Starbucks coffee is convenient, H&M sells inexpensive clothing, Uber is sometimes the cheapest ride option, and a lot of people love the food at Waffle House. Given that boycotting is personally inconvenient and that many demonstrations don’t often yield lasting, tangible results, is there any reason for you, a progressive individual, to participate?

Boycotts allow us to say something about our values, even if they don’t change any business practices.

Paradigmatically, a boycott aims to change corporate behavior by impacting a company’s bottom line. By this measure, most boycotts fail miserably. We are creatures of habit. Even if we decide to boycott Starbucks, we can effortlessly fall back into the habit of getting a tall dark roast before work. Further, in many cases, potential boycotters would not have purchased the company’s products under any circumstance. For instance, I can’t afford a Brooks Brothers suit, so if I were to publicly denounce the brand, that would not affect its profits. 

But surely some boycotts are successful, right? The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is heralded as a success because many believe it brought an end to bus segregation in Alabama. But causation is a tricky thing. Did bus segregation end because of the boycott? Alabama’s segregation laws were ruled unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle, a federal lawsuit pursued by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Federal courts could have decided this case absent any boycott!

According to Daniel Diermeier, writing for the Harvard Business Review, successful boycotts share several features. First, consumers must care passionately about the issue that inspires the boycott. Mild moral outrage will not sustain a useful boycott. Second, it must be easy to participate in the boycott. For instance, it’s easy to boycott a fast-food restaurant, harder to boycott a service you use every day, like public transportation. The third and most essential element of a successful boycott is media attention. The more time national media outlets spend covering a boycott, the more successful it will be.

Getting these and other stars to align in a single boycott is difficult. Thus, many boycotts die off before any significant change is made. If the sole aim of the practice is changing corporate behavior, it seems rational, then, to avoid boycotting, opting instead for convenience. But I believe at least some boycotting demonstrations serve an expressive function. They allow us to say something about our values, even if they don’t change any business practices.

Successful boycotts are fueled by passion and media attention. Outrage and individual Twitter fingers could bring a corporation to its knees.

Consider the 2015 Quentin Tarantino boycott orchestrated by the New York City and Los Angeles police departments, among others. Tarantino chastised U.S. police departments at a New York rally against police brutality. The next day, numerous police organizations called for a boycott of Tarantino’s films. The boycott was a way to express their anger. The officers couldn’t radically alter Tarantino’s mind, nor could they undermine his long-term success. But they could speak their minds by refusing to support him financially.

Consider also the 2015 civil unrest in Baltimore. Black Baltimore residents took to the streets to protest the brutal death of Freddie Gray at the hands of several Baltimore police officers. While it was not a traditional boycott of a person or business, the civil unrest was public and expressive, and it disrupted the day-to-day dealings in the city, achieving the same results as a good boycott. Black Baltimore residents believed America would only listen if they yelled. America did hear them. To that extent, they succeeded.

But what if your boycott is not “heard” by the corporation? Successful large-scale boycotts garner significant media attention. But why should one participate in a small-scale boycott that is unlikely to have an economic impact on, or to be heard by, the offending corporation? I, for example, refuse to shop at the clothing store Billy Reid. The last time I visited its Georgetown location, a sales associate followed my companion and me around the store, attempting to annoy us until we left. I personally hate Billy Reid, but the company has no idea. Wouldn’t it be more rational for me to abandon my boycott?

No! Personal integrity is important. Living out and expressing our values (even if only to ourselves) is essential. Even if the corporation never hears your voice or your group’s, you will hear it. That voice needs to be one that you can respect. As a consumer, you can gain a sense of dignity in knowing that corporations can’t manipulate you with convenience and price, that you have principles that extend beyond your personal bottom line. That knowledge is invaluable.

Also, if everyone decided to stick to their guns by refusing to support racist, insensitive or unfair corporations, and by broadcasting their personal boycott on social media, many potentially unsuccessful boycotts could yield significant change. Successful boycotts are fueled, in part, by passion and media attention. Thus, outrage, action and individual Twitter fingers could bring a corporation to its knees.  

If your boycotting doesn’t matter to anyone but you and your close friends, that’s fine. Just don’t let that fact discourage you from taking a stand. Moreover, boycotts are not the only, and often not the most effective, means of expressing an opinion. In a democracy, we are permitted to write opinion pieces, blog, protest in public and petition our elected officials. Boycotts are just one tool. In short, doing something is better than doing nothing. And doing something is good for your soul.

Brandon Hogan is an assistant professor of philosophy at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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