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Boycotting: Putting power back in the hands of consumers

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It’s easy to feel helpless. Even if documentaries on scandals surrounding major brands such as LIDL and Haribo cause outrage, citizens find themselves stuck without a solution as soon as they turn off their TVs. Still, civic engagement platforms and activists are proving that boycotting has an impact. We spoke to the individuals who stop at nothing. 

Nestlé, Lactalis, Coca Cola... not one of these brands are strangers to scandals. While the French media continue to report on the Lactalis affair, Germany recently experienced a scandal of its own. It’s Haribo’s turn to face the critics. A few uncomfortable truths can be found behind the brand’s cute yellow teddy bear, including labour practices described as “modern slavery”, unhygienic working conditions and accusations of animal abuse. German public broadcaster ARD denounced the deplorable working conditions for Haribo employees in some parts of the world, revealing how the company exploited Brazilian workers whose salaries and working conditions violate human rights laws. The documentary drew a total of 2.75 million viewers across the country. But at the end of the screening, as we have seen time and time again, the outrage directed at Haribo gradually dissipated as viewers went on with their daily lives, forgetting what they had just seen on their TV screens.

"Boycotting makes me feel powerful"

In other words: simply being informed isn’t enough. It’s time for consumers to act on the information that is given to them, to take action and boycott brands if they want to put an end to the barbaric practices certain companies carry out. Mathilde, a young psychology student, loves Dragibus (a type of Haribo candy, ed.). Like many others, she has seen countless videos and articles about the accusations made against Haribo. In liking or sharing the content, she endorses and echoes this information on social media. But she isn’t naïve: “The fact that I can share information about the company gives me the illusion of participating in the fight against these unfair practices. In a way, it makes me feel better…” The young woman tells us that this kind of “couch outrage” has its limits because clicktivism won’t really change things.

In search of freedom in her consumption, Mathilde has chosen to use online boycotting campaigns. The method is quite simple: participants unite on the Internet to collectively stop buying certain products. Mathilde believes that the strategy works because it gives new meaning to the act of consumption. “Boycotting makes me feel as though I have power over what I consume. I choose whether or not to buy a product,” the young student explains. Following revelations from Greenpeace about the devastating fishing methods used by French brand Petit Navire, Mathilde made the decision to stop buying canned tuna from them.

Levent Acar has examined this sort of consumer behaviour in detail. Two years ago, he founded the first online platform to facilitate boycotting: For him, civic engagement is part of a broader phenomenon of “responsible consumption”. This method of bringing awareness has started to have an impact, as France’s faire-trade product sales have seen a 20% increased in 2016 and organic product sales have seen a 20% increase compared with 2015 (according to the online guide ‘Mes courses pour la planète’, ed.). Acar believes that a business will evolve if the market allows it to do so. And since consumers find themselves at the end of the supply chain, it’s up to them to uphold the role of “ethical guardian”. The solution is to understand economic mechanisms in society in order to later use boycotting to overcome abuses. The platform’s leader says: “Individual boycotting is about doing your part, but collective boycotting is about establishing an opposition.”

From Gandhi to Cash Investigation

From Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela to Gandhi, boycotting has always been an essential form of democratic protest, allowing people to regain power by attacking the Achilles heel of big businesses: money. In a world where everyone is online, the consumer has many digital tools at their disposal. “However, we should be careful not to become consumers of scandals, we need to harness the current combative spirit to ensure we make long-lasting change,” Levent Acar urges. In France, the success of documentaries is largely thanks to the public’s interest in scandals surrounding major brands, as was the case with Cash Investigation’s film on LIDL (3.8 million viewers, ed.). Still, even if the general public is intrigued and concerned by the problems presented in the documentaries, few have managed to find the means to act on their concerns. That is why Acar decided to launch his civic engagement platform and put the power back in the hands of the consumer.

Managed by a team of volunteers, I-boycott enables all citizens to create or participate in social mobilisation campaigns. The movement seeks to mobilise as many people as possible; the digital community boasts more than 100,000 members with branches in 13 cities across France, according to the platform leader. He also claims that, as consumers, we all have the means to play a role in the policing of ethical standards through our purchasing power: “Every time we choose to buy something, we are choosing to either accept the system or reject it.”

Thanks to the Internet, boycotting is becoming a democratised means of mobilising people without any temporal or geographical constraints. Boycotting often crystallises work that is carried out on the ground by organisations such as charges made against a brand, awareness campaigns and other nonviolent methods of civic resistance. These initiatives encourage more and more businesses to incorporate ethical standards in their economic logic. Since 2017 in France, a decree has forced many businesses to adopt CSR (corporate social responsibility).

A boycott campaign can have disastrous consequences for a company, which is usually reflected in an intense drop in sales. Volkswagen, for example, saw a 5% decrease in sales worldwide in the year following the “diesel dupe” scandal. In this particular case, the consumers’ discontent directly affected the company’s profits.

This is in line with what Mathilde says: “Brands are better off taking a preventative approach rather than waiting until there a boycotting campaign emerges because it can be difficult to restore a brand’s image.” That is certainly the case for the Lactalis scandal and the company’s poor communication; the director of Lactails took several weeks to respond and make a statement. The pressure from consumers and the legislator has even made ethical standards a quantifiable measure. According to a study by McKinsey, 36% of big bosses ranked corporate social responsibility among their top three objectives.

"Boycotting shouldn’t be seen as being a punishment”

For brands to evolve, they need to be ethical. That is why, according to Levent Acar, economic boycotting is only effective if it is conducted without hostility: “Boycotting shouldn’t be seen as being a punishment. It’s the construction of an open dialogue that makes it possible for a consumer-business relationship to evolve in a positive way.” On the I-boycott platform, a company is informed when a campaign has been launched against their brand. The company has the right to respond and accept the demands, and communicate with the boycotters. Following their response, a vote is cast so that participants can make a collective decision on how to proceed.  

For example, in accepting and addressing the demands from boycotters, Oasis managed to lift the boycott that was placed on their brand. In 2016, Oasis was criticised for its partnership with Pinder circus, which had been accused of animal abuse. “That is an example of the principles of democracy being applied to the market,” says Levent. Things seem to be going well, as the platform has had four victories since it was launched.  

As Anne Lappe, a professor and writer committed to sustainable economies, says: “Every time you spend money, you are voting for the kind of world that you want.” But neglecting a product isn’t easy. You have to find an equivalent that meets your criteria: a “buycott”. First conceptualised in the columns of the Los Angeles Times, the concept refers to the act of choosing a product over another for ethical reasons.

A study conducted by Unilever shows that one third of consumers’ purchasing decisions are based on the brand’s social and environmental impact, making it an economic and marketing consideration for companies. To make it easier for the consumer, many labels, awards and other accolades have emerged in a bid for brands to prove their social and environmental credentials. The same study confirms that 21% of participants will actively make the decision to buy a specific product if they clearly display their sustainability credentials on the packaging. Mathilde tells us that among several similar products, she always chooses the one that stands out with a ‘responsible’ label: “When I buy a coffee for example, I always buy fair-trade.” To present new products to consumers, I-Boycott has added an ‘alternative’ section to its website where Internet users can propose and vote for the best substitutes for incriminated products. “Buycotting has made a name for itself in an economy that thrives off consumption. It provides a [new] framework,” Levent Acar stresses.

Crossing borders

If boycotting is a political act in and of itself, one which puts pressure on society, it has to remain impartial. According to the founder of I-boycott, we have to be careful of political exploitation. In other words, we must prevent the “weaker” camp from being exploited by the “stronger” camp.

The I-boycott platform is managed by an organisation, but the campaigns are proposed and approved by the community before they are launched. These campaigns must also be in line with the respective regional legal framework. “When a citizen launches a campaign, they undergo an incubation period during which they are subject to voting and criticism,” Levent says. It enables them to avoid defamation and accusations of misinformation. The campaign then has 30 days to acquire a minimum of 1,000 boycotters. The brand or company’s right to reply is also a moral guarantee. “It is the idea of working together without either side losing out,” Acar explains. The consumer is always the one who has the last word.

Once the framework has been established the limit remains the same because it is the quantity of participants that makes a boycott legitimate in the eyes of businesses (and other consumers). With regards to Levent and the image of businesses that evolve internationally, the counter-powers must also transcend borders for the mobilisation effort to be as effective as possible. What about an international boycott? "We know that boycott platforms are effective in mobilising people. The collective force carries us and transforms a solitary act into a mass mobilisation," says Mathilde. Life is good.

Once the framework has been established, the limit remains the same because it is the quantity of participants that makes a boycott legitimate in the eyes of businesses (and other consumers). According to Levent, like large companies operating internationally, counter-powers must also transcend borders to make mobilisation as effective as possible. What about an international boycott? “We know that boycott platforms are effective in mobilising people. The collective force carries us and transforms a solitary act into mass action,” Mathilde responds. So, are we in the happy world of Haribo?

Translated from Le boycott : du pouvoir pour les grands et les petits