Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical

Do not boycott BP.

I know you’re mad. I am too. But a boycott won’t accomplish any of the things you’re trying to accomplish. And it’s unethical.

The push to boycott BP (as a punitive response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, obviously) comes from the advocacy group Public Citizen, which encourages you to: “Boycott BP: Take the Beyond BP Pledge today!” There’s also the inevitable Facebook group, Boycott BP.

This move is well-intentioned, but entirely wrong-headed, for a number of reasons.

The first reason has to do with alternatives. Sharon Begley at Newsweek, with the sarcastic title “Boycott BP! Because it’s much better to give your money to Exxon.” It’s highly unlikely that those who participate in this boycott are going to eschew gas purchases altogether. With a few exceptions, they’re much more likely to simply start buying their gas at the non-BP station down the street. And, as Begley points out, as far as the oil companies providing the oil go, good luck finding one that meets your high ethical standards — or even minimally decent ones. Every oil company you can name is in roughly the same moral category. So boycotting BP just means jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Second, there’s the fact that a boycott of BP gas stations won’t actually hurt the organization you’re trying to hurt. In practice, “boycotting BP” means boycotting BP-branded retail outlets. And as an editorial in the LA Times pointed out, “BP stations are independently owned, so a boycott hurts individual retailers more than London-based BP.” So, sure, boycott BP stations — that is, if your goal is to hurt a bunch of small businesses already operating on razor-thin profit margins. Put a few minimum-wage gas jockeys and cashiers out of work. The difference simply will not be felt at BP’s head office. (The same naturally goes for vandalism of BP stations, which is both unethical and criminal.)

Finally, there’s the question of tokenism. Buying gas for your car is far from the only way many of us indirectly buy from BP on a regular basis. As “DanH” points out in the Comments section of this blog entry, (see comment at June 3rd, 2010 2:52 pm) BP also makes home-heating fuel, airline fuel, ingredients for plastics, and the natural gas from which much electricity is generated. Oh, and solar panels — BP makes those, too. If you want to make this boycott real (which you shouldn’t) you’ve got to boycott those things, too.

Can consumers take action? Sure they can, by doing things — long-term things — to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. They can also write their elected representatives to encourage tougher regulation of risky practices like deep-water drilling. And so on. I know, I know: in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “But I’m mad now! Well, then direct the righteous indignation you’re feeling now toward change that will make the world better for the future.

It’s fine to be angry about this disastrous oil-spill. Being angry is entirely appropriate. And it’s good to want to do something. But do the right thing, not the first thing that comes to mind.

(Tip of the hat to AP.)

35 comments so far

  1. Wayne Norman on

    Hey, I like a man-bites-dog story as much as the next guy. Overall, your argument strikes me as on-target. But I worry about a few things.

    First, there are at least two oil companies that HAVE stood above their peers over the past decade in terms of taking (shall we say) their corporate citizenship seriously: namely Shell and … wait for it… BP. And it wasn’t all greenwashing and PR. Both firms really did take important steps. So, in principle, a boycotter could switch his or her business over to the only decent one still standing: Shell.

    Second, it is true that a boycott will hit some local station owners where it hurts. This is true with almost all boycotts: they hurt employees that weren’t involved in the decisions that inspired the boycott. But it will also help some local station owners (i.e. the ones who get your business). Be that as it may, it will also hurt BP. And moreover it sends a tangible aggregate signal to BP and their rivals that there is a reputational risk to bad behavior. Or to put it another way, do we really want bean-counters in the future advising their bosses at oil companies that they don’t really have to worry about brutish behavior because, “hey, in 2010 there wasn’t even any noticeable dent in BP’s sales!”?

    Third, during BP’s long “beyond-petroleum” charm campaign those local station owners were the beneficiaries of consumers who wanted to reward a more progressive oil company. These consumers didn’t want to reward one local business person rather than another local business owner. So is it really unfair that the local owners also have to suffer the PR downside?

    Fourth, I generally like BP stations. They tend to be cleaner and have better stores than the others. But I have to admit, when I drive by now I get squeamish at the thought of giving them my business. It is just hard to do. It’s not an argument, it’s not about following a movement. It’s literally a gut feeling. BP just stinks these days.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Wayne:

      Fair points. My only replies are these:

      1) From what (little) I understand about the gas business, BP is a wholesaler, not a retailer. And so the connection between BP station sales and BP’s bottom line is very loose. (If anyone can fill me in with a more precise understanding, I’d appreciate it).

      2) Like most knee-jerk reactions, this boycott is being promoted & taken up mostly by people who aren’t taking into account even the minimal (but important) facts I’ve offered here. If I saw some numbers to show that this boycott would actually hurt / send a message to the right people, I’d be more sympathetic to the idea.

      Chris.

  2. Megan Strand on

    Great post. I so wanted to disagree with you and held my breath all the way through your points, even as I begrudgingly agreed with them.

    Your last two paragraphs were what made me change my mind about the post. So THANK YOU for offering an alternative and guidance on what the “right” way is to direct righteous indignation. Good stuff.

    @meganstrand

  3. Tamir Berkman on

    Hi Chris,
    Good post and thanks for the research. But why cant people voice their frustration with big corporations clearly unethical behavior? I’m talking about safety measures of oil workers which BP was ignoring:http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/bp-fought-safety-measures-deepwater-oil-rigs/story?id=10521078,
    Concerns about big corp empathy, firing employees that complain about safety measures and investing negligible amounts of money in improved oil cleaning methods. There are the corporate PR spin methods, media control and dirty politics. To end this list I also believe that being the main contributor to the death of more than 1000 birds, sea turtles and fish and the destruction of breeding grounds need to be addressed. For this criminal behavior BP deserves all the opposition we can master. Yes, people should be mad now and “social media” is the quickest way to make their opinions public. I believe that BP boycotting groups on facebook and other social media campaigns like: http://twitter.com/bpglobalpr will contribute to public pressure, stakeholders opinions and new legislation on safety, social responsibility and sustainable energy.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Tamir:

      Why can’t they? They can. And they should. But they should make sure their “voice” reaches the right target. My strong suspicion is that this boycott won’t do it.

      Chris.

  4. brian mccabe on

    Ethical? Moral? Is it ethical/moral for labor unions to strike even though people beyond the pricipals will suffer? Is it ethical/moral to engage in civil disobedience? Is it ethical/moral for any company to spend enormous sums to increase production (and hense, revenue, while failing to invest in the technologies necessary to prevent production-related disasters? Is it ethical/moral for a company to argue in court that liabliity should be limited in order to protect stock and bond holders when no effort was made to protect the people. Is it ethical for a company to buy political influence in order to reduce political oversite of its operations? Is it ethical/moral for a company to lie repeatedly about the scope and gravity of a problem in order to keep a lid on bad publicity? It is ethical and moral to launch a $50mm advertising campaign to promote clean up efforts that have proven to be inadequate?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Brian:

      I take it those are rhetorical questions. But no matter what the answer to them, none of that changes the argument I’ve offered above, which is that the boycott is a) unlikely to be effective and b) likely to hurt the wrong people.

      Chris.

      (For what it’s worth, I think the answers are “sometimes, sometimes, no, maybe, no, no, and no.”)

  5. [...] @ 6:28 pm Tags: Chris MacDonald, The Business Ethics Blog MacDonald has a really interesting post today (It’s dated June 9th.). He discusses proposals to boycott BP filling stations. [...]

  6. Geoff Livingston on

    If BP was authentically contrite, I’d agree. But not so given the continuing ethical abuses:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/us/10access.html?WT.mc_id=US-SM-E-FB-SM-LIN-JST-061010-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click

    I’d have to say that anyone who associates themselves with this brand, needs to look themselves in the eye in the mirror and ask themselves what they stand for.

  7. Chris MacDonald on

    Geoff:

    It seems a bit odd to punish franchisees (who may well be very contrite) for BP head office’s lack of contrition, doesn’t it?

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that people who have signed on to the brand need to think about what the brand stands for. But I’m not so sure we could say, of any particular small business-person, that, in signing up to be a BP franchisee last year or 5 or 10 years ago, she or he made an ethical error worthy (now!) of punishment.

    Chris.

  8. Megan Strand on

    Asked a friend in the petroleum industry to read this post and these were the insights:

    I agree in large part with this post. The real solution to the problem is to have higher safety standards in the drilling industry. Unfortunately that just doesn’t happen overnight. All of the points about why a boycott won’t work are completely valid. I will add another one to the mix… the Petroleum industry’s distribution is based on fungible product. In other words, because an 87 octane gas molecule is the same no matter who produces it – all the pipelines and storage facilities run based on volume inventory not actual branded product. So when BP puts a gallon of gas into a pipeline or storage tank, they are guaranteed to get a gallon out, but not necessarily the same gallon they put in. The only thing that differentiates gas at the station is the additives (like the Techron at Chevron). Much like the one-day boycotts one hears about, this would not cause a big enough impact to BP corporate to make a difference. It would simply shift demand by a day or two, and would very much hurt the retailers who are independent people like you and me.

    Responses to other arguments I often hear:

    We should stop drilling in the gulf:
    - Again this won’t change our consumption, and will simply make the US more reliant on foreign oil.
    - The two biggest sources of income for families along the Gulf are fishing and oil drilling. There are thousands of companies that are involved in the drilling industry and all would be threatened by a delay to drilling. (Ironic after watching the SOTU and Obama saying jobs were a top priority.)

    We should make BP pay for everything:
    - BP was only the majority owner of this well. They own 60% of the well, and two other companies had the other 40% ownership in the well. I absolutely agree that they should be held fully accountable as is defined by regulations and laws, but they are not the only party that should be cutting checks.

    BP should now have to pay for the lost wages of people in the Gulf.
    - Well the government put a hold on the drilling activity, not BP. Drilling has been done safely for years and years and years. The wrongs at one site do not incriminate all of the other platforms.

    BP is an unethical company.
    - I really struggle with this one. Certainly every company has some people working for it that make unethical decisions. To lump all of the tens of thousands of employees into that group is unreasonable. I probably know at least 100 people at that company. While I don’t necessarily like them all, I can say without hesitation, that they are good people. They are our neighbors, church friends, organizers, volunteers, adoptive parents, and fellow citizens. They are all trying to save their pensions, and retirement funds, and livelihoods. My heart goes out to them. My company too, is always one bad choice away from being in the same place they are. One mistake is all it takes.

  9. [...] MacDonald did a great post entitled Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical.  While not cause marketing, per se, it does illuminate how complicated these issues can [...]

  10. Erika on

    Until I see all those people pushing boycott give up their minivans and SUVs, I’m only so sympathetic to their cause. Hypocrisy is never pretty. The trouble is that BP simply is not going to listen to anything that doesn’t directly affect their pocketbooks. So. How do we go after their pocketbooks? They obviously don’t listen to laws, regulations, or warnings. We can add more regulations, sure – for them to ignore. The huge profits make it entirely worthwhile for them to chance a fine here and there. So while I think the boycott is impractical, I also think your alternative suggestions are unrealistic, except for long term reduction, and even then, our entire society is built on petroleum, so there’s not much hope of making a true, substantial difference. So. I’d love to see some other ideas about how to have an actual effect on BP’s observance of safety responsibilities.

    As for the franchisees, the argument that boycotts hurt the little guys is one of the smoothest bits of big business protection ever – ANY action taken against any big business for any offense is going to affect the employees/little guys. Big businesses hold their employees and franchisees hostage as protection for themselves – this makes the big businesses the moral criminals, not the consumers. We shouldn’t let them hide behind this screen. The “oh, gee, somebody might get hurt, we better not touch them” is exactly what BP is counting on.

  11. Chris MacDonald on

    Erika:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about hypocrisy.

    As for big business hiding behind the little guy — I only agree in part. When consumers boycott a business (directly) employees etc may be hurt, and that may be justifiable. (I believe the military term is “collateral dammage.”) But in the present case, it seems like a boycott will *mostly* hurt franchisees, with minimal effect on BP. So this isn’t a case of the little guy suffering collateral dammage. Rather, it’s the little guy being hurt as a *way* to send BP a message, and that seems objectionable.

    Chris.

  12. Wesley Gee on

    Hi Chris,

    When it comes to boycotting BP at the pump (vs. through share ownership, proposed resolutions, voting), does it matter that franchise owners may be punished if what boycotters are trying to do is to bring visibility to the various concerns that they have of BP and/or the oil and gas sector?

    Do you think that this localized approach could still result in actions that BP would need to take to address these concerns? As service stations are the most visible presence of BP, as well as where the company has a significant relationship with the community, I’m sure that this is one of several approaches that could hit their bottom line as well, which is what they care about.

    I realise that this may result in local franchise owners being affected (akin to Greenpeace et al punishing local shops from selling Nestle Kit Kat bars), but it may also be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Like social media, a variety of approaches need to be taken to bring visibility and refined understanding of issues, and provoke social change. Question is, could this approach be worth it?

  13. Chris MacDonald on

    Wesley:

    Well, yes, I’d think it matters that franchisees are punished — regardless of the objective — if those franchisees are generally not to blame. Punishing the innocent is generally a pretty bad thing.

    And I suspect that the chances of BP making the kind of systematic changes it needs to *because* of a boycott (one that, again, won’t affect them much) is very small.

    I’d like to find out what % of BP’s net profit comes from retail gas sales, along with a projection of what the biggest plausible boycott would do to that.

    Chris.

  14. Les Stewart on

    Franchising is a unique form of commercial activity. It provides legal insulation for the brand owners while exposing the franchisee to the risks of franchisor opportunism.

    BP is a fully-informed franchisor and achieves the benefits of their choice of corporate governance. They have created the business model and independent contractors have chosen/not chosen to enter into a contract with them.

    Contracts are for better or worse, however, hindsight pseudo-philosophical analysis notwithstanding.

    Franchisees who cut corners into small business by renting a trademark controlled by others should achieve the benefits and costs for THEIR decisions.

    A consumer boycott is more than fair assuming we are dealing with rational actors.

    Les Stewart MBA
    Midhurst ON Canada
    FranchiseFool : WikidFranchise.org : LinkedIn

  15. Chris MacDonald on

    Les:

    Thanks for your comment.

    But as far as I can see, signing a franchise contract doesn’t make the franchisee responsible for everything the franchisor does. Yes, it’s fair for franchisees to bear some costs; but it doesn’t follow that we are therefore justified in imposing *whatever* costs we want upon them. *We* are responsible for *our* behaviour, too.

    (Compare: Secretaries who work at BP do so willingly, too, but it would be wrong to spit at them in the street over this oil spill.)

    Chris.

    • Les Stewart on

      Chris,

      There is a fundamental difference between renting and owning an asset that your argument does not address.

      I did not say that franchisees should be 100% responsible nor that employees are.

      But I would suggest that anyone choosing to enter the franchise sewer, expect to become a little smelly. BP set the table; franchisees and employees have the obligation to know the potential downside risks of associating with that brand.

      Rather than absolve or encourage passivity, I think asking individuals to think through the pros and cons of their associations might be more useful and might have actually prevented this catastrophe in the first place.

      “I was just following orders” is a lament with a particularly odious history to it.

  16. Chris MacDonald on

    Les, I don’t hear any of the franchisees saying “I was just following orders.” If they did, then yes, that would be a poor excuse.

    • Les Stewart on

      Chris,

      Franchisees will say exactly what their masters tell them to say or they are not long for franchising.

      You and I live on entirely different worlds but I wish you the best,

      Les Stewart MBA
      Midhurst ON Canada
      FranchiseFool : WikidFranchise.org : LinkedIn

  17. leo brady on

    Hi

    Hope you’re all well!

    Great article but I’m not convinced.

    Boycott long and boycott hard!

    best wishes!!

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Leo:

      I’ve provided reasons for my point of view. Do you have any? It’s unethical to punish people based on a simple gut reaction.

      Chris.

      • leo brady on

        Chris

        As with many decisions Chris, the path is not always black nor white. And sometimes innocent people may get hurt. I believe you are misleading people to inaction by the “unethical argument” subterfuge.

        e.g.
        Ethics have been discarded by:
        1. negligent companies poisoning people in the Gulf of Mexico.
        2. negligent countries killing innocents for their resources.

        Shall we stand by and remain ethical or shall we boycott?

        regards
        leo

      • Chris MacDonald on

        Leo:

        Because ethics has been discarded by some, does that mean others are justified in discarding ethics too? Do two wrongs make a right?

        If your position is that a) hurting innocent bystanders is OK, even if b) we are likely to accomplish nothing, you’re joining some very dubious company. Have I misread you?

        Chris.

  18. Randy on

    I agree boycotting will only hurt the local business owners and the people working for them. However BP needs to be held accountable for cleaning up the oil as quickly as humanly possible. If they do not there should be harsh punishment on the company itself.

    Knoxville Moving Service

  19. leo brady on

    Chris – I’ve sent this a couple of times but maybe you’ve started to see things from a different perspective. – lol
    It always concerns me when I see fellow academicians making a case to people that something is futile and recommending inaction. Cui bono?

    regards
    leo

    Hey Chris

    No I believe you’ve got me right.
    I’m running with the evidence that all boycotts are not futile.
    e.g.
    1. March 1769 – merchants in Philadelphia joined the boycott of British trade goods at the time of the American Revolution.
    2. 1880 – an English land agent in Ireland who was subject to a boycott organized by the Irish Land League
    3. 1955 – Montgomery Bus Boycott

    All these boycotts started as a non-violent responses to an injustices perpetrated by the boycottees (is that a word? ;-))
    The boycotter’s response was completely ethical and justifiable, in my opinion. There is also a power component and the attempt at balance that we aren’t addressing…
    I believe we must discard the “ethical inaction” philosophy for the greater “action justice-seeking”, if unethical,in your opinion, philosophy.
    Some even might say that inaction, in the long run, would be the greater unethical behavior.

    regards
    leo

  20. Kevin Newton on

    You make some good points. However, these independent owners pay sums of money to use the BP logo and perhaps even a profit share, and that money goes to BP. So boycotting them may not hurt BP a lot but it will have an effect – consumers can’t do much to hurt BP but this will be a small token gesture to indicate public opinion.

    If a store had the swastika as a logo I would boycott it too, no matter who owned it. I want nothing to do with BP and that includes any business, independently owned or not, that flies it’s logo and uses that logo to generate income.

  21. Chris MacDonald on

    It’s worth noting that most franchisees are likely subject to contracts that give them little choice but to keep flying the BP colours.

    It’s also worth noting that those franchisees signed up before the spill — back when (believe it or not) BP had a very good reputation, ethically.

    Under those circumstances, it’s hard to see franchisees as culpable.

  22. [...] are not infrequently the targets of protests, boycotts, and other forms of activism. But what about business as a form of [...]

  23. [...] Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical [...]

  24. [...] #2. Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical. The title of this one is self-explanatory. I argued that the call to boycott BP was perhaps well-intentioned, but a bad idea. The boycott of BP’s retail outlets was much more likely to do serious damage to innocent franchisees than it was even to be noticed at BP’s head office. (Say, how did that whole boycott thing turn out, anyway?) [...]

  25. [...] several times this year, including in “BP and Corporate Social Responsibility”, and “Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical”, and “Ethics, BP, & Decision-Making Under [...]

  26. [...] response to perceived price-gouging. (And lets not forget the not-unrelated but misguided calls to boycott BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout last [...]

  27. [...] tabloid “news.” Compare: there were few serious calls for BP to be dismantled after the Deepwater Horizon spill, despite that spill’s very serious human and environmental impact. But then, unlike News of [...]


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