Adam Kol

Published on:

January 25, 2016

Boycotts Almost Surely Will Never Work

What if "consumer power" is just an illusion?

by Wayne Hsiung

 The  Reverend Billy  admonishes us to stop shopping to save species like the Golden Toad. But are boycotts doing the job?
The Reverend Billy admonishes us to stop shopping to save species like the Golden Toad. But are boycotts doing the job?

“Boycotts almost surely will never work.”

These are the recent words of Ivo Welch, a well-known scholar at UCLA who has studied the effect of boycotts on pushing for social change, e.g. an end to apartheid in South Africa.

And those words should be troubling for those of us who find ourselves in movements dominated by consumer action. As George Monbiot has written, the boycott and other forms of economic action have been the principal tool of many social justice campaigns over the past 50 years. In everything from saving orangutans to fighting slave labor, we have been told that our power lies in our pocketbooks. This is especially true of animal rights, where virtually every campaign ends with some form of the “stop buying x” message.

But what if “consumer power” is just an illusion?

Welch, Orley Ashenfelter at Princeton, and Daniel Diermeier at the University of Chicago have challenged the effectiveness of boycott using careful analysis. And what they’ve found is that there are at least three factors that make boycotts nearly useless for proponents of social change.

First, there is always another buyer. While we would like to believe that our failure to purchase oil, slave labor goods, or a cheeseburger will send a resounding message to corporate abusers, in fact the long-term impacts of our choices are small, as suppliers can simply shift to another buyer (often with no difference in price).

Second, boycotts are almost always too small. In a world of multinational empires that span dozens of countries and millions upon millions of consumers, even the most ambitious boycotts rarely even register on the corporate radar.

Third, boycotts generally aren't sustainable. Even ideologically supportive people usually don’t sustain their commitments over the long term. We know, for example, that the vast majority of vegans give up their commitments -- sometimes with astonishing speed. One study found 60% of self-identified vegetarians had eaten meat within the past day!

Does that mean consumer action -- such as veganism -- is pointless? Not necessarily. For one, the fact that consumer action is not effective as a strategy for social change does not imply that we should give up on it on an individual level. There may be ethical reasons we undertake consumer action, such as veganism, that are independent of its immediate impacts. For another, some boycotts do seem to have an impact.

Brayden King at Northwestern sets out some of the key features of effective boycotts:

  • focus on impacting a brand's reputation rather than economic effects;
  • focus on a single, narrow target; and
  • focus on achieving sustained media as a mechanism to create a “reputation crisis.”

Of all the boycotts that achieved national media attention, 25% achieved some change, often by focusing on these factors.

 Social change demands that we turn the tables on violence with tactics such as the  Liberation Pledge .
Social change demands that we turn the tables on violence with tactics such as the Liberation Pledge .

What does this mean for veganism? Veganism is generally seen as a tool to change economics -- supply and demand -- rather than reputations, and we are expressly told to “be nice.” The result is that the stigmatization of industry that’s required for effective boycotts is undermined. In short, traditional vegan consumerism is ineffective because it fails to go after the industry's reputation. 

Vegan consumer activism is also the opposite of narrow and targeted. Rather, it is a vague boycott of anything related to animal agriculture. The symbolic, political, and messaging focus that comes from having an individual target, therefore, is lost. (As Bill McKibben said about the environmental movement, we need a villain to be effective. If everyone is the bad guy, then no one is.)

Finally, vegan consumer action, at least as conventionally sold, asks us to fit into the mainstream rather than generate attention, controversy, or even crisis.

In all of these ways, then, veganism is a boycott that’s likely doomed for failure. Far from “saving lives,” as most animal rights groups falsely claim, the conventional focus on consumer action may very well be ensuring our movement’s irrelevance.

What’s the alternative?

To recognize that the boycott is just one among many tactics. To push the boundaries of political imagination to find more inspiring models of action: protest, storytelling, norm formation (such as the Liberation Pledge), and, yes, direct rescue and liberation. To create agents of change, to connect them into empowered communities and networks, and to inspire those networks to take powerful political -- not consumer, but political -- action for animals.

At root, the intuition is quite simple. The boycott is simply “not doing something.” But what this movement needs -- what the animals need -- is not a movement of “do nothings” but “do somethings.” So let’s go out and do something for animals.