The political consumer

Fliers around campus promoting the Taco Bell and Coca-Colaboycotts remind me of the awesome power we have as consumers.Purchases are a vote of support for a business. When consumersboycott or vote en-mass against an entity, it is one of the mostpowerful economic strategies to enact social change.

They aren’t always the best strategy (for instance, whenconsumers don’t readily have alternatives available to a boycottedproduct) and they don’t always work (the boycott on Janet Jackson),but in many cases they are very powerful.

Like many good things in life-well, good whiskey at least-theboycott comes from the Irish. Irish farmers waged war in the 1780’sagainst English land agent, Charles Cunningham Boycott, who refuseddemands to cut rents during a time of poor crops. Their refusal towork his land or sell him goods forced him to return to England.Relations between the two neighbors never really improved.

Perhaps because it involved kicking English ass, the UnitedStates embraced the term and concept. In the late 1880’s, boycotted railroads that charged exorbitant rates, and in1885 alone American labor unions carried out 196 officialboycotts.

One civil sanction that made a profound impression on20th-century U.S. society was the Montgomery bus boycott, organizedby Martin Luther King Jr. after Rosa Parks refused to take a backseat aboard public transportation in 1955.

The United Farm Workers boycott of table grapes, begun by CesarChavez in the 1960s, and the recent boycott of Nestle over themarketing of infant formula in developing countries has greatlyimpacted attitudes and business practices in those industries.

Research gathered at the consumer information Web found that business leaders consider boycotts to bemore effective than other consumer techniques like class actionsuits, letter writing campaigns and lobbying and are taken moreseriously because well-organized boycotts directly threaten sales -the life blood of any business.

In a 2003 study, Britain’s Co-operative Bank determined thatboycotts cost big companies 2.3 billion pounds a year. According toa Guardian newspaper analysis, they used safe conservative methodsto achieve accuracy and may have even undercut the totalimpact.

The impact of boycotts on “Killer Coke” and Taco Bellremains to be seen. The Coca-Cola boycott wasn’t called due tosyringes, rats or band-aids in cans, but after union organizers andCoke employees were assassinated, tortured and taken hostage afterattempts to unionize in Cardona, Colombia. Colombia is reportedlyone of the most difficult locales for labor unionization andbrutish union-busting isn’t uncommon (see The Vanguard, April 6,2004).

The Taco Bell boycott was called a few years ago by a coalitionof Florida Tomato pickers – the Coalition of Immokalee Workers(CIW). Press coverage has been supportive; much media coverage drewcomparisons to working conditions they endure as modernslavery.

The 2.5 million members of the Presbyterian Church are on board,CIW members won the 2003 Robert Kennedy Human Rights award and overa hundred Notre Dame students are currently on a hunger strikeprotesting their Universities ties with the chain and otherproducts.

One of the major demands by the CIW is that the Yum corporation,which also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W and others, pays one centmore per bucket of tomatoes picked. According to the CIW( they’ve made the same 40-45 cents per 36 poundbucket for twenty years. They have to haul 125 buckets, or twotons, of tomatoes to make $50 per day, less than $7,000 a year.

While a few students I’ve spoken to saw a Friendster message ora flier, many didn’t know much about the boycotts. Many alreadypracticed pocketbook voting and avoided Taco Bell and Coke, exceptwhen drunk or needing a mixer for their Irish whiskey. I could betalking to the wrong people. A few of those I asked for commentconsumed both products, but admitted they may cut down consumptionor boycott knowing that the companies that produce them engaged inunethical practices.

Cutting out the boycotted products will help, but each of ourdaily individual purchases also makes a difference. Like Madonna,we are material girls (and boys) living in a material world. Everyday we spend money on not only our needs, like water and energy,but also a glut of snacks, trinkets and baubles. Our purchases aresmall, quiet sociopolitical statements. Each purchase sends amessage to the company that they are doing something right – buthow often is that true? However invisible and insignificant it mayseem at the time, our purchases are votes of support not only forthe product, but for the companies business practices.

For many, it can be difficult to always vote responsibly withour pocketbooks. As much as I’d like to, I find it hard to alwaysbuy local, unionized, organic, recycled, chemical-free,non-sweatshop etc. and to avoid Taco Bell when I’m drunk. Morepeople are trying, though, and that is encouraging news, not onlyfor the earth and laborers, but for business profits.

Jeffery Hollander-the CEO of Seventh Generation, a company thatmakes socially-responsible home products-argued at a recent lectureto the PSU business school that responsible businesses areoutperforming their non-responsible counterparts on every level.With profitable performance ruling our current system, otherbusinesses should follow suit and our responsible choices shouldincrease.

For most products, we have plenty of alternatives to the bigcorporate polluters and labor exploiters. A quick Internet searchwill turn up a list of businesses with good track records. Oncampus we have Food for Thought for part of the day, and perhapsAramark can be persuaded to get wise and cancel the Taco Bellcontract (there’s got to be another source of cheap Mexican-likefood that causes indigestion).

Taking part in the successful tradition of boycotting thewrongdoers is one easy step to take. The next increasingly easy wayto create social change is to vote with our hard-earned money forthe success of businesses that act in the right way.