Opinion: A Guide to Boycotting Human Rights Violations

Protests against Nike after a factory collapse in Bangladesh. Image courtesy of Reuters via Business Insider.

Consumer boycotting is one of the most obvious, and perhaps easiest, forms of protest. My introduction to boycotting came early, via my mother, who refuses to buy Nestlé or Nike products and proudly proclaims to have never stepped foot in a Primark. Her grounds for boycotting originate in the Nestlé baby milk scandal and reports of child labour at Nike factories. These companies are not alone, the statement of boycotting is used to protest everything from films due to allegations against cast members, to the country of Israel over the treatment of Palestinians. While the idea and motives behind a boycott are clear, the desired outcomes are not always so easy to make out. When companies like Nestlé and Nike continues to boast multi-billion-pound annual revenue, it has to beg the question: do boycotts work?

What is a boycott?

Boycotting is defined as the conscious withdrawal from commercial or social relations with a country, organization, or person as punishment or protest. Although seemingly varied, boycotts usually fall into two categories; grassroots and professional. The former tends to draw in like-minded consumers, and substantially reducing sales, but the impact often remains short term. Professional boycotts, on the other hand, are methods of powerful actors such as states and multinational corporations implementing economic sanctions, often by a state, which tend to be more effective but are generally more difficult to enact due to the scale of the matter.

The case of Nestlé

The Nestlé boycott following the 1974 report “The Baby Killer” by Mike Miller commissioned by War on Want, is a great example of how the outcome of a boycott is dictated by the methods used in the protest. The report outlined the investigation into the promotion and sale of powdered baby milk in developing countries. Nestlé sales representatives dressed as nurses encouraged the replacement of breast-feeding with Nestlé products in communities who did not have the proper training in using the substitute. As a result of these tactics, infections and malnutrition in children caused several deaths and lead to an international boycott of the brand. Even the United Nations World Health Assembly recommended an “international code of conduct to govern the promotion and sale of breast milk substitutes.” Some activists concluded their boycott when Nestlé claimed to have refined their policy in 1982 through the help of stakeholders including UNICEF. However, others continue to boycott the brand, highlighting the disparities in boycott goals. Where some aim to change policy, others attempt to punishing companies for historic wrong doings.

What makes it effective?

Whether boycotts like the Nestlé example make any impact at all is often not down to the financial pressure they cause but the damage they do to brand reputation. According to Brandon King, IPR associate “The number one predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,”, largely because those who boycott a company may not be the target consumers, exemplified by PETA’s boycott of KFC. The Nike Boycott in the 1990’s is an excellent example of a boycott made effective through its damage to a brands reputation. A report in 1991 by Jeff Ballinger exposed the low wages and poor working conditions of workers in the factories Nike subcontracted to make its products, and led to protests at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, provoking mainstream media attention that carried throughout the 1990’s. This resulted in Nike raising the minimum age of their workers, better monitoring of subcontractors, adoption of clean air strategies in factories, as well as continuing commitment to audits and increasing transparency of policy.

The Nike example goes to show that if you want something, you need to ask for it. Effective campaigns have a clear set of “asks” of the company, provide clear lures to incentivise compliance with demands and threaten punishments if they resist. Ideally the company should be presented with two options; “In one, the brand loses value because it is connected with a problem… In the other, the brand gains value when it is perceived as a leader. Combined with a smart, do-able ask, a brand might be inclined to sign on without the need for a public boycott.”

So should you boycott? My answer is obviously yes. Boycotting is demonstrable way to pressure companies to change business practices that you deem immoral, using the producer consumer dependency to your advantage. It gives you and me a role in nudging the world in the right direction. However for an enduring change it is clear that boycotts can only be one element of a campaign. That is the beauty of boycotts; they cannot be done by one loud voice, because they are the result of the many.

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