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Is Your Personal Boycott Helping Anything Besides Your Own Conscience?

You stopped buying a company's products and you shamed them with an uncomplimentary hashtag. But are they listening?

“I’ve always been that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything. I thought I couldn’t make a difference because I was too small.”

That’s what Greta Thunberg, the teenage figurehead of the global climate change movement, told a Guardian reporter in March. It’s fair to say she underestimated herself. In the nine months since her first lonely protest, aged 15, outside the Swedish Parliament building — when she skipped school on her own to hold up a banner and hand out leaflets, explaining to passers-by that she was on strike because the grown-ups in power were failing to reduce carbon emissions — she has had an astonishing impact on world politics for someone who can’t even vote.

Thousands of fellow schoolkids in at least 100 countries have joined her School Strike for Climate movement, many inspired by her own example of staying home every Friday. Thunberg herself, meanwhile, has deployed her stern, eloquent charm to force climate change to the top of media agendas, speaking in front of the U.N., the European Parliament, the world’s corporate elite at Davos and a parade of head-patting heads of state, rebuking them all like they were the children in the room.

On the face of it, her unlikely fast-track from truancy to Nobel Peace Prize nomination, and according to Time magazine, one of 2019’s most influential people should serve as gold-plated inspiration to anyone who’s unhappy with the status quo and wants to do something about it. But from another perspective, her trailblazing example makes every other, less-than-total-commitment form of protest feel a little droopy and pathetic.

Thunberg’s own lawbreaking aside, it’s becoming hard to ignore the sense that we’ve moved into a global era in which staging direct, neck-on-the-line action is the only way to get things done. Student survivors of the Parkland shooting became full-time activists and organized the 80,000-strong March for Our Lives to get federal gun-law reform inched forward; British opponents of fracking devoted eight years of their lives to sustained protests, many being arrested along the way, to convince the U.K. government to block shale-gas extraction across the country; and France’s gilets jaunes demonstrators have been setting light to the streets of Paris since October in order to change Emmanuel Macron’s mind on economic reform.

Next to the sort of angry mobilization that seems to be going on everywhere right now, is there any longer much point, you might wonder, in meekly adding your name to an online petition, sharing a worthy hashtag or boycotting sweatshop-made clothes brands or palm-oil food products? That sort of defiance seems so 2015. Can our consumer choices and ostentatious stance-taking by themselves be said to have any influence at all on the behavior of corporations and the state of society? And maybe more importantly, did they ever?

From Boycotts to Buycotts

A few years ago, I interviewed Naomi Klein for her book on the politics of climate change, This Changes Everything, and these same questions — how far do you need to go before your personal protest stops being posturing and starts counting as progress? — were on her mind. The seasoned campaigner and author told me she thought that whether or not to step up and engage in direct action over a cause “was a really personal question,” but that even back in 2014, when it came to standing up to authority, she thought more and more people were beginning to feel “a need to bring their actions in line with their sense of urgency.”

Like Thunberg, Klein is a figurehead for a number of liberal and progressive movements, and another individual whose personal actions — most significantly writing No Logo, the 1999 best-selling exposé of globalized Western brands who relied on labor abuses — can be seen to have had a tangible influence on the world we live in. Klein’s investigations helped to usher in the age of corporate social accountability, inspiring the mass boycotts of Nike and other brands during the 1990s and early 2000s, which were in protest of child labor and subhuman working conditions in developing countries. Yet, she told me, it wasn’t until a decade or more later that she actually took to the barricades herself for a cause: “I was arrested for the first time in my life protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. And, you know, I’ve never done anything like that. I think that was very much about expressing that sense of urgency.”

This might be because, at least up until a few years ago, a well-publicized boycott had been seen as the pre-eminent tool for ordinary people in Western democracies to bring about social change. It’s widely acknowledged that the Nike boycott over its Asian sweatshops — which at its height saw its previously unassailable sneaker sales drop by 8 percent in 1999 and its stock price fall by 15 percent — motivated the company to Just Undo It, and overhaul working conditions in its supply chain from 2001 onwards. Under continued supervision from NGOs, the reformed sportswear giant has since gone on to refashion itself as a vocal proponent of social responsibility and sustainability in the corporate world (though it’s worth noting it still has its issues and its critics).

But while it seems there are more boycotts than ever these days, they might not be the weapon they once seemed to be. A much more recent boycott faced by Nike shows some of the tactic’s limitations, and illustrates how the no-buy standby might have lost some of its teeth in the digital age. When the company co-opted today’s politics of protest in September last year by announcing Colin Kaepernick would front its “Believe in something” ad campaign, opponents of the quarterback immediately called for a boycott of Nike products. Initially Nike Inc. saw its share price slip by 3 percent, but within a week, supporters of the “take a knee” protests Kaepernick had spearheaded in the NFL had reacted to the furor in droves and turned it into a “buycott” — online sales were up by more than 30 percent and the stock price snapped back into line.

Boycotts can backfire in the other political direction, too. Calls have reignited this year to boycott the Georgia-based fast-food chain Chick-fil-A over its continued financial support for religious groups campaigning against same-sex-marriage. The last time the issue flared up in 2012, however, the damage was counteracted by a Facebook call from Fox News host and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for religious conservatives to take part in a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” and register their opposition to LGBTQ rights with a faceful of poultry.

It’s likely much of our instinct to participate in boycotts comes from positive associations with the more successful episodes in history. The colonists’ boycotts of British goods in the 1760s were the first steps of dissent on the road toward the American Revolution, and the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in 1955 and 1956 traditionally marks the start of the Civil Rights movement. But according to a study conducted in 2011 by Brayden King, a management professor at Northwestern University, the majority of boycotts, even in their pre-digital heyday, haven’t quite hit their mark.

In examining the effects of 133 boycotts between 1990 and 2005, he did find that the longer media interest in the protest went on, the worse companies fared financially — with share prices losing an average of 0.7 percent for each day a boycott appeared in national print media. But in a 2016 interview with Freakonomics author Stephen J. Dubner, King expressed skepticism as to how damaging they really were: “There’s some research that suggests that even consumers who are ideologically supportive of a boycott don’t tend to follow through and support [it]. It’s just hard to actually stop buying a product that you’re used to buying.”

Instead, his research suggested that those boycotts that do force firms to reform tend to be those that specifically target a single company’s reputation, an asset typically more precious and vulnerable than its bottom line. “In more recent years, as the companies have come to rely extensively on image and reputation,” King wrote in his study, “the importance of reputation and positive media coverage appears to have changed the mechanism of a boycott’s greatest influence, thus making it an attractive tactic for movements of all types.”

Click Against the Pricks

Perhaps for this reason, many modern movements for change are bypassing boycotts altogether, and instead using online tools and social media to go straight for the reputational jugular. A particularly successful example is the organization Fashion Revolution, which campaigns to transform the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters (currently responsible for 3 percent of global CO2 emissions) and most unjust employers into a system based on clean, climate-friendly production and fairness for its workers.

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Today, 28th April is the International Day for Health and Safety for Workers around the world. Following the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, we are taking this today to bring about awareness on the fate of the Bangladesh Accord. In the almost six years since the Rana Plaza collapse, the Bangladesh Accord has brought great progress to the safety situation of garment factories in Bangladesh. On 19 May however, its Bangladesh office might be forced to close down because of a restraining order. @CleanClothesCampaign are taking action, urging the government of Bangladesh to support the Bangladesh Accord's appeal against the restraining order. This is happening in the wake of the worst repression in a decade against workers who protested for higher wages. Workers in Bangladesh deserve safe factories, living wages and freedom from repression #FreedomSafetyLivingWage. WHAT CAN YOU DO? Call upon the government of Bangladesh to support the unrestricted continuation of the Accord's work by signing the @CleanClothesCampaign’s petition at the link in our story. This really important call to action needs as many signatures as possible to send a united message about the need for the accord. Add your name, and be heard. Image by Kristof Vadino

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The group’s co-founder, designer-turned-activist Orsola de Castro, embarked on this mission six years ago in response to Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza tragedy — when a Dhaka garment factory collapsed killing 1,134 people. She notes that in the past decade the sheer scale and connectedness of digital communications have reshaped the way protest movements operate. “Being an activist has radically changed,” she says. “The names that we’re using now — ‘activist’ and ‘influencer’ — have very different meanings to what they would have had however many years ago.” Although while the tools have changed, the fundamental dynamics of people-power remain the same: “But I do think that we ‘act’ and we ‘influence’ with everything that we do.”  

According to de Castro, fashion has always had its own rich language of personal protest. “During the French Revolution women used to wear a very, very thin red ribbon around their neck — that was a comment on the guillotine. If we look at hippies and the whole movement around stopping the Vietnam War — at Woodstock, people really were targeting something with their presence there, and obviously their presence included the clothes they wore.” Or, in many cases, didn’t.

In taking on the corporate goliaths, Fashion Revolution’s weapon of choice has also been transparency — and it’s been incredibly effective. Annual commemorations marking the April 24th date of the Rana Plaza disaster (styled as Fashion Revolution Week, in stark contrast to the catwalks and glamor of the global Fashion Week calendar), and teamed with the simple hashtagged prompts such as “#whomademyclothes?,” have brought the faces of garment workers in the supply chain — along with all the other issues and irresponsible practices the industry would rather keep hidden — fully and vividly into the buying public’s view.

It’s a killer combination of awareness-raising and selfies, which has seen Fashion Revolution’s operations balloon in the past three years. “We’re almost corporate,” says de Castro. “We’ve grown from a spontaneous team of eight people to nearly 23, and we had 3.25 million engaging last April, with a total reach of total of 275 million people.”

Alongside opening social causes up to a worldwide audience, being able to measure their impact in cold, irrefutable analytics is another key difference of activism in the digital age. Now campaigners can respond in real time to how both their supporters and the corporates they’re pressuring are engaging with the issue, and messaging can be re-tuned and re-targeted on the hoof. In the face of reputations mathematically crumbling before their eyes, big brands in particular, says de Castro, “are definitely more likely to change — that’s something I can confirm. Because we know for a fact, from the brands themselves, that they consider one #whomademyclothes request as being the equivalent of 10,000 demands from people who perhaps wouldn’t have gotten around to doing it. So we absolutely know the power of the campaign.”

Fashion Revolution has also tapped into the positive power of brands’ reputational neurosis. In 2016, the organization launched its Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks 200 companies according to how open they are about their social and environmental policies. “We know that they compete with each other at this point to score higher on our Transparency Index,” says de Castro.

As far as she’s concerned, the secret to Fashion Revolution’s success has been “the personal activism, 100 percent. It was tapping into the personal outrage, but with the right tone of voice. We’re getting a little bit rougher around the edges and a bit more angry right now, but the tone of voice when we started was inclusive.”

And against the accusations that online campaigns often amount to “clicktivism,” an anemic form of protest that’s more about displaying your virtue to friends and family than furthering a cause, de Castro does get where that idea comes from. “We’re very narcissistic at the moment, and we want people to tell us ‘Well done!’ in everything we do. That’s why we do the petition online, that’s why we do the selfies, that’s why we do all the things that we do.” But, she adds, “I don’t believe that this kind of clicktivism is negative, because it’s taking a position. But it has to come with follow-up — it should never be complacent. Signing a petition online is nothing unless afterward you keep following the thread as to why you signed that petition.”

So armchair activism — as long as it comes from a curious, engaged and informed place; what de Castro calls “upright armchair activism” — absolutely does have power in the world, she thinks. And we shouldn’t swallow the view that the massive numbers involved on both sides render all our likes and shares worthless gestures. In fact, it’s scale itself — the vastness of the corporations and the many millions of consumers they rely on to keep their leaky hulls afloat — that makes each of those dissenting clicks count (at our special rate of 10,000-for-one). “We’re so many,” says de Castro, “and there are so many things that can be done by changing small aspects of our daily life.” As she points out, “We weren’t 7 billion when we were embroidering ‘No Nukes’ on our jeans and protesting against Vietnam; there were fewer people on the planet. Through growth in people and growth on social media, and we have fine-tuned the concept of personal activism.”

In a democracy, the political power wielded by governments and public figures has always been held in check by small deeds of personal activism — otherwise known as voting. We might see adding our clicks to social causes we support online as an impotent or vain act. Or we might choose to see it as an extension of those democratic limitations to businesses, multinationals and other shapers of society that have historically remained unaccountable. Channeled and amplified by organizations on the Fashion Revolution model and petitioning portals, as individuals, our agency to effect change in the world is perhaps greater than it’s ever been — at least for as long as the behemoth networks of the social media monopolies last.

A fairly reliable bellwether for this is the fact that multinationals are increasingly adopting the symbolism of protest movements in their marketing. Aside from Nike’s Kaepernick campaign, of late we’ve seen Pepsi hastily withdraw an ad featuring Kendall Jenner as the face of outcry over its off-key plundering of Black Lives Matter imagery in 2017, while Levi’s has just gone live with this. In announcing that protest sells, the brands are also tacitly acknowledging their sensitivity to it.

As Naomi Klein said back in 2014, “The only way to fight against forces with so much to lose is to have an army on your side with even more to gain.” And the lessons of the digital age are that companies change their ways when their reputations are being trashed, and in that respect, social movements have numbers on their side. It used to be we shall overcome; these days it’s we shall overwhelm.