World Vision's Ruth Dearnley sits among petitions demanding a sweeter deal for cocoa farmers. She believes working alongside companies is more effective than boycotting them completely.
Back when I was a university student, I remember going to a talk about rights abuses in Colombia.
Former employees of a major multinational soft drink company spoke out powerfully about their experiences of abuse and exploitation. I wanted to take action – until I heard that the rally cry was to boycott the company’s soft drinks.
I’m not sure if my first thought was “is that really going to help the workers?” – or if it was, “how am I going to stay awake the night before exams and assignments?”
Either way, years on, I still believe boycotts aren’t all that effective in making a real impact. So let me explain why.
When people talk to me about human rights issues, like the use of forced, child and trafficked labour in the products we buy, it’s not long before the topic of boycotting the “worst offenders” comes up.
At first, boycotting a bad company or industry seems like a good solution. I see its value. It’s a quick and easy response to poor corporate practice. It’s a good way to ease our guilt at supporting companies that don’t meet our ethical standards. It’s a useful way to raise awareness about an issue. And it’s an easy action to encourage others to take.
But is it a case of problem solved?
Unfortunately, I don’t think so. In most cases, I think it’s ineffective – and at worst, harmful.
In the past there have been multiple international boycotts of some big global brands. And they’re still the big global brands. Even if a boycott is successful enough to affect sales, companies can find other ways to raise profits. They may start cutting production costs. Workers may be forced to take lower wages or work longer hours to make up the difference.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying a complex business process. And not all global companies are evil, out to make their money no matter what. But the fact is, a boycott can do more harm to the people it’s trying to help than it does to the company selling the products. And if a boycott did affect the company’s place in the market, would the one that takes its place perform to a better standard?
What’s more effective, I believe, than avoiding an industry with a tarnished record until it no longer exists, is to intervene and campaign constructively for immediate improvements.
For example, World Vision has supported hundreds of trafficked and exploited people who have reported their stories of suffering and abuse in the fishing industry. I think it’s important consumers know about this issue, so they can make informed choices about the products they buy.
But if you ask me, “Should I just stop buying fish?”, I’ll answer no. If you ask me, “Should I just buy Australian fish?”, I will say no.
Buying locally may help environmental sustainability and support local industries. A big tick for ethical and sustainable purchasing! But if your motivation is to help those suffering poverty and injustice in developing countries, then I believe it’s important you keep supporting the industries those communities rely on.
Of course we should try to buy ethical whenever possible. Sadly though, the likelihood of us completely avoiding all industries with questionable ethical standards is small. In those cases, I’d argue we must keep asking questions, pressing businesses to be more transparent about their processes. The companies that are doing the most to address the issue should be the ones we buy from.
In our efforts to avoid products tainted by trafficked labour, we must be careful not to stop supporting those hardworking communities that rely on our global trade. Boycotting could just put increased pressure on vulnerable workers – therefore reducing their income, pushing them into more poverty – and potentially making them more vulnerable to exploitation themselves.
We are better placed than ever before to choose wisely and be outspoken about it. It’s perhaps not as easy as boycotting – but in my view, it is far more effective.
Ruth Dearnley is World Vision Australia’s Campaign Leader for Child Protection and Trafficking in Persons.