The proliferation of information in the digital age has encouraged us to think about the supply channels that bring products into our hands. But are consumer boycotts really an effective form of protest?
Back in January when the #DeleteUber campaign first emerged, I was confused. Like most trending hashtags on Twitter, the outrage expressed by my extended digital network was stronger than my understanding of the cause itself.
What I arrived at, after some reading and speaking to friends, was that the New York Taxi Workers Alliance had taken strike action against President Donald Trump’s Muslim-majority nation immigration ban. The executive order had just come into force and was causing chaos at airports across the country. Uber had continued its service – accused of profiting from a bad situation by turning off surge pricing during the strike. The subsequent #DeleteUber campaign led to the deletion of over 200,000 Uber accounts.
Since its inception, Uber has challenged – or opportunistically ignored – the legal requirements of the states and countries where it operates. Like many of its Silicon Valley predecessors, the ride-sharing company regularly avoids tax payments. It does so through a convenient business model that diverts profits overseas, and skirts industrial relations responsibilities by treating its drivers as contractors rather than employees. Consumers are generally aware of this, but the convenience of the service tends to minimise public outrage on the issue.
Bringing Trump into the picture, however, struck a chord. So too did the second wave of #DeleteUber, which followed allegations of sexist workplace practices at Uber headquarters.
On a weekend night, when #DeleteUber was still alive and well, I ordered an Uber despite the queues of taxis waiting me on the street in front of me. Like many, I thought the migration bans were terrible policy, but I also couldn’t reconcile the connection between targeting Uber through boycott and the policy itself. Was I failing as a consumer, and thus failing society at large?
I’m just one person. I try to do the right things as a private citizen – I work for a not-for-profit, I volunteer, I take reusable bags to the supermarket. But is it enough to try to be ethical in my small way? When do we need to try harder, to publicly stand up for something in an effort to make large-scale change happen?
Is it enough to try to be ethical in my small way? When do we need to try harder, to publicly stand up for something to make large-scale change happen?
The proliferation of information in the digital age has encouraged us to think more carefully about the supply channels that bring products into our hands. It has broadened our awareness of immoral conduct by the corporations we interact with through this consumption. It can be as humorous as protesting against ‘new’ flavours of Arnott’s Shapes, as misguided as boycotting Halal products, or as serious as protesting against poor conditions for factory workers in developing countries. The complexity of the issue varies, but what is consistent is our sense of having been wronged, or of having wronged people in less privileged positions than ourselves.
Facing an existential crisis, and wondering whether we were all getting carried away with #DeleteUber, I turn to Deakin University philosopher Dr Patrick Stokes. ‘The way information is presented to us, we are invited to reflexively respond one way or another and in absolute terms. Say in 140 characters on Twitter,’ he explains. ‘We are invited to respond in a very un-nuanced way… Nuance is difficult. Nuance takes time, nuance takes effort in terms of informing yourself as to what’s going on and forming a view that may not be compressible to 140 characters. But that same impetus for quick reaction can make it too easy to say, “Well, I just don’t care”.’
Talking to Dr Stokes, I can’t help but feel guilty – I am that dismissive person who has decided that taking action is just too hard. But what are the alternatives? Uber isn’t perfect, but the security and service it offers is still preferable to the traditional taxi model. Shebah is a welcome ride-sharing alternative, but as a women-only service it will never be a direct threat to Uber. The Australian-owned GoCatch has potential, offering better conditions for workers and no surge pricing, but despite the company’s good intentions, reports suggest the sustainability of the business is in danger. The alternatives are imperfect but they’re there – even if it involves some personal inconvenience or doubt, using them provides scope to make a statement.
In the face of large corporations, I feel small and powerless. But there is evidence to suggest that boycotts can make a difference, whether by impacting on sales, affecting share prices or damaging brand equity.
In the face of large corporations, I feel small and powerless.
In 2016, 55 workers at Melbourne’s Carlton and United Breweries (CUB) factory were made redundant, asked to reapply with a new contractor with inferior pay and conditions. During the dispute, consumers were encouraged to show solidarity by boycotting CUB brands, with some licensed venues also refusing to serve their products. The campaign was shared on social media – coincidentally falling within the key beer consumption period of the AFL and NRL finals seasons. Though the campaign was union-led, the support and awareness raised through the boycott likely helped resolve the conflict, with the workers returning to work after their demands for fair pay and conditions were answered.
Boycotting has also had a tangible effect on at-home carbonated-drink manufacturer Sodastream. The Israeli company caused public outcry for locating their primary manufacturing facility on disputed territory at Mishor Adumim in the West Bank. Consumers were encouraged to boycott Sodastream products, resulting in a 42 per cent drop in profits from 2013 to 2014, as well as the eventual closure of the Mishor Adumim production plant.
A 2011 research paper from Northwestern University in the US found that corporate boycotts dropped the share price of the targeted company by nearly one per cent for each day of press coverage. An example highlighted in the study was the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMD) boycott of Disney for its poor record of hiring Latino executives. The campaign made it into mainstream media, and although the boycott had little impact on Disney’s sales, the coverage reduced its stock price by 3.48 per cent.
Corporate boycotts dropped the share price of the targeted company by nearly one per cent for each day of press coverage
Boycott action by itself won’t stop corporations from exploiting their workers or bring peace to the Middle East. But it sends a clear message of dissent, providing momentum for social change. In the case of Uber, the company remains the problematic but preferred provider of ride-sharing services, but the resignation of Travis Kalanick as CEO in June and a renewed focus on cultural change suggests that public pressure can make a difference.
While it’s easy to get on our soapboxes, successful activism is rarely about wiping out organisations completely. Corporations are powerful, and that can work in our favour. As Brendon Steele from corporate responsibility advisory group Future 500 explained to the Guardian, successful campaigns have well defined ‘asks’ that set out two clear alternatives: ‘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.’
Companies can change. In 2013, the chairman of pasta maker Barilla came under fire for homophobic remarks, resulting in a boycott of Barilla products. A year later the company reviewed its human resources policies – Barilla now has the highest rating in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. Despite this change, articles on the controversy remain on the internet, as a reminder that measures to promote good corporate behaviour need to be ongoing rather than reactive.
‘Combined with a smart, do-able ask, a brand might be inclined to sign on without the need for a public boycott.’
It’s impossible to keep our hands completely clean. Nonetheless, there is a need to be informed outside of our social media feeds by exploring the nuances that complicate an issue. Perhaps it’s talking to someone who may be better informed. Checking accounts from different news providers. Reading a book rather than a blog. We can boycott brands, but as we have learned from every brand tied up in any ‘boycott Trump’ campaign, nothing is clear-cut; one minute Jeff Bezos is condemning Trump’s immigration ban and defending freedom of the press, the next minute Amazon stocks Ivanka Trump’s fashion line and engages in corporate bullying.
There is value in opening discussion through conversation and on social media, so long as we offer alternatives rather than cut down corporations completely. Perhaps it’s promoting electricity providers that are focussed on renewable energy or giving ride-sharing apps with fairer working conditions a go. Websites like Choice, Human Rights Watch and Get Up! provide information to assist with making informed decisions.
We are quick to complain when our order arrives late in the mail, or when what we receive isn’t quite what we expected. But at the same time we tend to forget when people do a good job, or atone for their mistakes. Social media and other feedback channels can also be used to reinforce good behaviour, whether that is good customer service or a sustainable business model, empowering businesses to lead these positive initiatives, instead of merely defending themselves against accusations and criticism.
Not all the world’s problems can be solved through consumer protest. But at the same time, there’s no need to baulk at the inconvenience of action or dismiss issues as ‘systemic’. We can make small changes: one purchasing decision over another, opening a conversation rather than shutting one down, and promoting good business practice where we find it.
The Uber app still sits on my mobile phone, but now in the company of other alternatives that I use when I can. Reflecting on #DeleteUber, it’s not in the having or not having it that makes the difference, but the symbolism of its call to action. Because of the campaign, I’ve started sharing my knowledge of Uber’s business practices, and my positive experiences with alternative providers which prove that there’s a better way. It’s in looking a little harder, starting conversations about unethical practices and thinking beyond ourselves as consumers that we become more powerful than we might think.