Who Do Boycotts Hurt?

If you boycott a company’s products, who are you hurting?

Case in point, the recent boycott of Whole Foods in response to CEO John Mackey’s editorial arguing against Obama-style healthcare reform. (I blogged about it a couple of days ago.)

See this blog entry by Waylon Lewis at the Huffington Post: Why I Ain’t About to Boycott Whole Foods
Lewis writes: “…I, for one, am not going to boycott Whole Foods. I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Why?” His reasons (abbreviated) are as follows:

  1. Whole Foods is a vast organization, with thousands of staff, many if not most of whom disagree with John’s idealistic, superior Libertarian views….
  2. John doesn’t own Whole Foods. It’s public.
  3. Whole Foods, thanks to his leadership, has shown the way for thousands of green-minded companies….

Lewis’s point is a good one: a company is a complex thing, made up of many individuals with a greater or lesser stake. Can all be held responsible for the actions of the company, or of its head? (It’s sort of the inverse of the issue I raised in this blog entry: You Are Starbucks.)

A few thoughts & questions:
1) It might be that boycotters see Whole Foods’ employees and shareholders as “collateral damage” — acceptable “civilian” casualties, injury to whom is foreseeable, but unintended, and hence acceptable consequence of the attempt to reach a noble goal. Does that moral justification work, here?

2) It might be argued that there’s a sense in which no “member” of the organization is an innocent bystander: they’ve all chosen to be involved, and they all have some influence, no matter how small, on who ends up leading the company and on what policies it implements. Is that plausible, either as a causal story or as a moral justification?

3) It might be that no one really expects this call for a boycott to have any real effect. Maybe it’s all symbolic, a matter of concerned customers signaling to Mackey that they could, in principle, abandon his store if he keeps it up. But that only delays the question, rather than avoiding it.

4) The question of who is hurt by boycotts, and whether it’s worth it, is of course not limited to the present case. And it’s not limited to boycotts of particular companies: it also applies to boycotts of products and of countries. See, for example: Palm oil boycott will hurt impoverished farmers.

2 comments so far

  1. DarryleHuffman on

    One must remember this is just passing fad. As soon as they get the legislation through then it will be over. The fallout is going to be on the political end not the consumer end.

  2. Sang-gye on

    I think, I like what Darryle said. It seems to be a matter of dimension. There have been boycotts that were successful and justified: South Africa for instance. Yes, and it was the country’s leader who held their people hostage (so much about collateral damage).

    Gotta run.

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