BOYCOTTS HAVE HAD a place in Irish politics since the term was coined in 1880, when Captain Charles Boycott found himself ostracised by his local community in Co Mayo over a dispute with the Irish Land League. A hundred years later, workers at Dunnes Stores famously went on strike, having refused to handle goods produced by Apartheid South Africa. More recently still, there have been calls to boycott the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Just last week, controversy erupted after workers in a Smyths toy store in Dublin put up a sign informing its customers that products made in Israel had been taken off the shelves. The owners of Smyths moved quickly to remove the sign, clarifying that there was no official boycott and that they did not get involved in political affairs.
If only it were that easy.
We are all deeply and unavoidably involved
These days, it’s practically impossible to be a consumer in Ireland without interacting with companies or countries that are the subject of boycotts. If you’ve ever had a Coke or a KitKat, ordered a book from Amazon, bought a Nokia phone or worn a pair of Adidas football boots, you may have helped to contribute to practises which are deeply unethical.
Your next shopping trolley may well be filled with products from similar companies and even your choice of supermarket can have ethical implications – Tesco, for example, have announced a boycott of West Bank products, and are also the subject of a boycott over animal rights violations in China.
Even the decision to stay neutral or to ignore the unethical practises of the companies and countries with which we interact is itself a political act. Whether we like it or not, we are all deeply and unavoidably involved in political affairs, thanks in large part to globalisation.
So, what should we do if we want to be ethical consumers? Should we research each and every product we buy and forgo those with links to unethical practises? Should we refuse to watch the next Olympic Games in Rio and the next world cup in Russia? Should we forgo our favourite brand of tea, or pay extra for our books, or switch to the supermarket farther down the road, even if our actions will make absolutely no difference to the practises of the companies in question?
Actually, we probably should.
Arguments for inaction
There are two arguments for inaction which are worth considering. First, maybe it’s simply too demanding to be a completely ethical consumer nowadays – many moral philosophers believe that ethics cannot require too much of us: we are not moral saints, and it is unreasonable to expect us to act in ways which would require huge sacrifices on our part.
If being demanding does matter, is it really too demanding to say that we should avoid using products or services that come from companies our countries that we know to be acting in ways which are deeply unethical? Are the costs to us really so great, compared to the harms we are contributing to, that we would find it impossible to take the time to research and avoid unethical companies and countries? Perhaps this is so for some people – those who are very poor or who have no other choice but to use unethical products – but for the vast majority of us, it is simply not true that it would be too costly for us to cut out at least some of the unethical products we may be using at present.
A second argument against acting more ethically focuses not upon the costs to us of acting, but on the likely consequences (or rather, the lack of consequences) that a boycott would be likely to have. According to this argument, it is pointless to avoid products when doing so would not be likely to make any real difference. After all, what difference can a handful of people make when it comes to massive multinational companies that are raking in millions or billions of dollars each year?
What is the point of a boycott?
Setting aside the fact that boycotts often do make a difference, even when targeted at hugely powerful companies and countries, it is important to recognise that the point of a boycott does not have to be to bring about change. Sometimes, it can be about making a public stand against injustice, or it can simply be a matter of not wanting to have any part in injustice. Presumably the workers at Dunnes Stores in the 1980s did not believe that their boycott would lead directly to the fall of the Apartheid government in South Africa. Yet it would be strange to think that their actions were somehow pointless as a result.
However, there may sometimes be good reasons not to engage in a boycott, even when we know that a company or country is behaving unethically and when boycotting would not be too costly to us. The strength of a boycott is that it isolates its target, but this can also make the target more defensive, and less likely to engage in more constructive ways of solving the problem. Boycotts can allow governments like those in Russia and Uganda to present narratives to their people which cast them as the victims of foreign bullies. Sometimes, a less confrontational approach might be warranted, if we think that it is more likely to be effective.
Boycotting can be counterproductive
Other cases where boycotts might not be the best solution are those where the effect of the boycott is likely to make things worse for those we want to help. For example, forcing a company to shut down its sweatshops may not always be the best option available if the result is that it leaves workers unemployed, rather than merely exploited.
At best, boycotts are a double-edged sword – sometimes effective, sometimes counterproductive, sometimes misused and sometimes morally required. Acting ethically isn’t easy, given these complexities, but one thing we can say with certainty is that we have a duty to think very carefully about our options, when it comes to choosing what to buy or not to buy. We must do all we reasonably can to ensure that we are neither complicit in injustice, nor making things worse in an effort to combat it.
Brian Carey is a PhD student of political philosophy at the University of Manchester, and holds an MA in philosophy from UCC and an MSc in human rights from UCD. Follow him on Twitter @BPDCarey.