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Wednesday, 5 April, 2000, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Boycotting: Walk on buy

Can shoppers prompt change by turning their backs?
By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

If money really does talk, British consumers can make a lot of noise where it counts, say advocates of boycotting - the activism of the shopping basket.

In recent months, shunning an array of products from soft cheese to shiny executive cars has been suggested as the remedy to all manner of ill-received political and corporate decisions.
Graffiti at BMW dealership
Will BMW get the message from customers?

Chris Mullin, a junior government minister, opened a political can of worms when he suggested customers annoyed by the closure of 172 rural branches of Barclays Bank should "vote with their feet".

BMW's unceremonious dumping of its Rover subsidiary also prompted calls, if more cautious, for a boycott.

The leader of Birmingham City Council, Albert Bore, urged consumers to support the Midlands car industry by "buying British".

Of course, few of us have to negotiate the ethical minefield of purchasing a luxury saloon car. However, we can all try to make our voices heard in the High Street.

Dr David Marshall, an expert on consumer behaviour from Edinburgh University, says boycotting stems from our growing belief in the power of "consumer sovereignty".
Boycotts
1999 - British shoppers shun French produce during the Beef War
1999 - Fidel Castro calls for drinkers to buy only Cuban rum in a dispute with Bacardi
1995 - Drivers avoid Shell petrol during Brent Spar row
1977 - Nestle targeted for its marketing of baby milk formula
1971 - Students boycott Barclays Bank over its South African dealings

Even if we believe the "consumer is king", Dr Marshall queries the public's discipline to keep to a boycott.

"In surveys, people will often claim a willingness to do something about an issue, but whether they actually do anything is another matter."

Boycotts tend to mobilise relatively small groups of concerned people. There are only a certain number of issues over which entire populations will change their daily habits.

Even if we can be transformed from "Not In My Back Yarders" into conscious consumers, the mass of brands produced by today's multinationals make it hard to know what not to buy.

Ruth Rosselson from Ethical Consumer magazine says boycotts can be effective if shoppers are armed with lists of all the products made by the target company.
Shopping
Consumer power: The basket and the ballot box

She refutes suggestions the public will happily forego the odd luxury product, but balk at abandoning their favourite brands.

"There are always alternatives in the shops. You can simply choose one product over another. It's very easy to just pick up another brand."

Ms Rosselson points to the recent move by UK supermarkets to stop stocking genetically-modified foods after a public outcry.

Pump action

Shell's decision to halt the dumping of its Brent Spar oil platform was also attributed in part to drivers giving the company's petrol stations a wide berth.

"The boycott has a long history and is a very effective weapon for consumers who don't want to take to the streets to protest," says Ms Rosselson.
Shell's Brent Spar oil platform
Brent Spar: Oil on troubled waters

But some of the most famous boycotting campaigns of recent decades have had less than resounding results.

Despite wringing some concessions from food giant Nestle, the Baby Milk Action boycott to curb the promotion of infant formula in developing nations continues to rumble on after more than two decades.

Another long-running consumer protest, over Barclays Bank business in apathied South Africa did go the way of the boycotter.

Banking on victory

However, comentators suggest the bank's move to leave South Africa in 1986 was more to do with financial conditions than the 12,000 student accounts the bank is said to have lost over 15 years.

The true test of boycotting comes not with national companies, but with errant or repressive governments abroad.
Powdered milk
Milk and money: Critics have boycotted Nestle for 20 years

Last year, with the acceleration of human rights abuses in East Timor, Nobel Peace Pirze winner Jose Ramos-Horta called on other nations to ban imports from Indonesia.

With 150,000 British tourists going to Indonesia each year and 957m of trainers, clothing and other commodities heading in the opposite direction, a boycott would presumably have helped the East Timorese.

Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett, an economist at Strathclyde University, says giving your daily cup of Java a miss may not have had the desired effect.

Crash of symbols

"Boycotts can have a very considerable symbolic effect, but little effects on the government in question. They, of course, have great effect on those people in the target country who actually make the product being boycotted."

Professor Hallett says even concerted efforts by groups of nations to bring a government into line through trade embargoes can fail.
Coffee beans
Bean and gone: Can coffee change government policy?

"They tend not to work or work so slowly the target government finds a way around them."

Although it is difficult to find an example of a nation brought to heel by sanctions alone, Professor Hallett says preventing the flow of capital to the government itself is the only way to get results.

If the authorities in the UK chose not to use this "politically unappealing" weapon, High Street boycotters can be left tilting at windmills.

"Boycotts may be an inconvenience, but they don't generally bring nations to their knees or cause governments to reverse their policies."

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See also:

04 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Barclays 'boycott' row deepens
03 Apr 00 | Entertainment
Bond's four-wheeled dilemma
25 Nov 98 | Sci/Tech
Brent Spar's long saga
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