As long as politics is the shadow of big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.― John Dewey
Whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist or an ardent socialist, it’s fair to say that large businesses – multinational corporations especially – have incredible power. It’s also fair to say that that power isn’t always used for the greater good.
John Bunzl and Nick Duffell, writing in The Simpol Solution, suggest that we are in the grip of what they call “destructive global competition” or DGC. As long as there is one jurisdiction that ‘competes’ by offering low corporate tax rates, lax environmental regulations, soft labour laws, or some other incentive for corporations, then all the other jurisdictions have to do something similar. Otherwise, corporations move jobs elsewhere. No jobs results in no votes for politicians, and of course, unemployment for the citizen.
DGC is why even progressive-leaning political parties seem to promote the status quo. They can only push so hard in this environment, before losing votes and thus losing the power to change things.
This must change. It is completely unsustainable, no matter what timeline we consider.
So what can we do? As a consumer, we’re often told we can punish companies by boycotting their products. That is still true in certain industries, especially for small- to medium-sized businesses, if you can get enough people on board for a boycott. I’m sure you can think of many examples where public outcry and a drop in sales reversed an announced policy or changed a specific company practice.
It’s not terribly effective in the long term, however, as public attention is fickle. Neither is it much of a bother for large or multinational corporations. Consider The Procter & Gamble Company, which owns something like 65 different brands, with dozens of individual products under each brand line. You could boycott one brand of laundry detergent in favour of another, only to discover, once you read the label carefully, that they’re both owned by P&G. So not only is it hard to avoid that company’s products in the first place, they have so many that a temporary drop in sales for one brand won’t hurt them much.
Boycotts are also only truly available to the privileged: those who have the time and the money to be able to make considered purchases. A single mother working two part-time jobs, and who is reliant on public transit to get groceries, doesn’t have nearly as many choices as a double-income family with two personal vehicles. So while you may be able to avoid one corporation’s products completely should you want to, that corporation is still able to make millions of dollars from other consumers. Thus, we need to do more than just temporarily avoid a product for a while.
How to Take Action:
- Complain directly to that company’s customer service channel. A drop in sales can be attributed to too many other things: a dud advertising campaign, a new competitor, a sudden price sensitivity, the end of a trend. If you’re going to stop buying a company’s product, you have to let them know why. (Note: Don’t be rude to the customer service rep for any reason. They’re just doing their job.) In a blog post, grocery store chain owner Galen Weston once noted that the most angry emails they’d ever received was when they started wrapping their cucumbers in plastic. A flood of complaints does get attention.
- Publicly call the company out on social media. Not only is it harder for a company to ignore something being done publicly, but other people will see you taking a company to task, and might be encouraged to avoid the product and voice their displeasure as well.
- Do both of the above even if you have never bought the product and don’t intend to. For example, I never buy soda, but I have complained to soda manufacturers about their continued use of plastic o-rings to distribute their products. If you see something, say something.
- Bring the problem to the attention of a larger organization or media outlet, too. For example, it wasn’t widely known that retail clothing stores were actively destroying and dumping millions of unsold items, until it came to the attention of the media and advocacy groups. Now there’s considerable pressure against these “fast fashion” practices.
- Rethink your investments. If you are fortunate enough to have a retirement fund, have a hard look at where you’re invested. There’s no point in avoiding a company’s products if you’re actively supporting their current stock market valuation with your mutual funds! Many brokerages and banks now offer “ethical portfolios,” and while there’s a lot of greenwashing out there, these are worth a look. Talk to your advisor about establishing an investment policy.
- Push an investment entity to divest. When big investors, like the Vatican, for example, announce they’re no longer going to invest in anything related to fossil fuels, you can bet it makes a difference. Pick a bank, a mutual fund, a private equity firm, your government’s pension plan, and tell them to divest themselves of environmentally-destructive companies.
- Do the same to your insurance company. Big investments come with big risks, which big insurance companies underwrite. There have been a number of successful campaigns to pressure insurance firms into declining to insure things like pipelines.
- Support eco and social justice lawsuits. Individuals don’t have the resources to fight corporations in court, but non governmental organizations (NGOs) do, especially if you donate to their legal funds.
- Finally, rather than boycotting, which is temporarily abstaining from purchase, permanently and proactively switch to ecofriendly products and services. Indeed, we’ll talk about how to do just that in later posts.