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Boycott mania

As business ethics fall, consumer activism rises

'One of the most remarkable circumstances . . . of our age," wrote William Ellery Channing, the Unitarian minister from Boston in 1829, is the ''energy" with which citizens throughout the nation could ''easily act together." Proximity was no longer necessary for effective political action. Enabled by the advent of cheap print and the national postal system, ''widely separated multitudes" could now unite in protest ''with the uniformity of a disciplined army." The virtual army described by Channing so many years ago was America's first great wave of consumer activism.

Channing's observations are equally apt today, as we experience a whole new wave of consumer boycotts (and its flip side, the buycott) facilitated by another communications revolution. Via the Internet, fax, and World Wide Web, along with traditional modes of mobilization, a diverse group of protesters that includes labor and civil rights activists, environmentalists and feminists, evangelicals and gun owners, the young and the old, progressives and conservatives, are using their collective, often global, power to withhold support from businesses deemed immoral or, conversely, use their purchasing power to support a cause.

Conservative Christians, for example, have launched a series of boycotts against companies, including Disney, Microsoft, and, most recently, Procter & Gamble, whose policies they deem immoral and supportive of a homosexual lifestyle. Several progun groups have organized a ''National Buy Ammo Day" in support of the Second Amendment. A liberal group urges Democrats to ''Buy Blue" -- that is, to support only companies that contribute to progressive candidates. When Bush opponents were advised to avoid shopping on Inauguration Day, Bush supporters quickly responded with a call for a ''Buycott on Inauguration Day." ''Shop for George" was the message they delivered.

There are hundreds of other examples of boycotts and buycotts of companies, products, and even nations. Although many of us have never heard of most of these campaigns, nearly two-thirds of Americans now participate in at least one boycott on an annual basis, according to political scientist Caroline Heldman of Whittier College.

During Channing's era, as in our own, boycotters and buycotters mobilized consumer power on behalf of a number of different, often opposing, causes. What set off the minister's comments were the actions of Sabbatarians, evangelical Christians who in the late 1820s called for boycotts of businesses that remained open on Sunday. A group of wealthy evangelicals in Rochester, N.Y., even founded their own Sabbath-upholding commercial steam ship company to compete directly with companies that violated the Bible's Fourth Commandment.

Temperance advocates called for citizens to boycott saloons, and some even established alcohol-free taverns. A group of abolitionists opened ''free produce" stores that sold only items grown and manufactured by nonslaves. From the other end of the ideological spectrum, white Southern advocates of ''nonintercourse" with the North took to avoiding Northern merchandise. They wore homespun clothing and urged Southerners to support, through their shopping habits, the commercial independence of their slaveholding region.

Although the word ''boycott" was not coined until the 1880s, the practice first gained prominence as a political tactic during the ''nonimportation, nonconsumption" campaigns of the Revolutionary era (think Boston Tea Party). The attempt to turn economic clout into political power has remained an important element of American political culture ever since. Emphasizing that organized purchasing power can improve not only their own lives but the lives of other people as well, American boycotters and buycotters have highlighted the ways in which the act of purchasing a good connects the shopper to the business that manufactures it, to the laborer who makes it, to the ecosystem which is impacted by its production (and use), and to the nation in which the product was made.

Because shoppers rarely know the origins of the goods they buy (a condition already beginning during the so-called ''Market Revolution" of Channing's era), consumer activists have seen it as their duty to be the eyes and ears for ordinary consumers, advising them of the ethical costs of immoral consumption. ''The sugar with which we sweetened our tea, and the rice which we ate," declared the black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet in 1851, ''were actually spread with the sweat of the slaves, sprinkled with their tears, and fanned by their sighs."

During the 1930s, another decade characterized by diverse and extensive boycotts, a Boston-based committee to boycott silk from fascist Japan passed out pamphlets to notify women who persisted in buying silk stockings that they were guilty of murder. ''If your stockings are silk . . . they helped Japan to murder thousands of babies and women, workmen, and peasants of China." Today, consumers of ''sweatshop free" apparel and ''fair trade" coffee aim to endorse well-paid labor through their purchases. Unlike the pundits who argue that consumer society produces an apolitical citizenry obsessed with private pleasures, consumer activists see shopping or abstaining as public forces with social and political consequences.

In certain eras -- including Channing's time and our own -- consumer activism has become especially popular. What explains the prevalence of boycotting and buycotting in these periods? Americans tend to turn to consumer activism when they are frustrated by what they see as unresponsive business leaders, who sell unsafe, defective, or immoral products, as well as amoral or ineffective politicians, who promote objectionable policies. Under these circumstances, citizens attempt to take matters into their own hands by organizing at the point of consumption.

Rather than a signature event, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s or the United Farm Workers grape boycott of the 1970s, these eras are characterized by numerous and also less well-known actions. Recent times have amplified these trends; the last decade has witnessed an unprecedented number of consumer actions, passionately supported but relatively unknown to other citizens, many of whom similarly support niche cases of their own through boycotting and buycotting.

Consumer activism is an American political tradition but it is hardly a monolithic one. Though they all seek to follow the admonition of the Depression-era consumer group, the League of Women Shoppers, to ''use your buying power for justice," different groups of activists have markedly different conceptions of what constitutes justice. The prescient Rev. Channing, who opposed the Sabbatarian campaigns as unduly coercive, warned of the need ''to secure this powerful instrument against perversion." Channing's wish has not come to pass: the history of consumer activism is a tale of clashing moral visions, from the boycotting and buycotting abolitionists and supporters of slavery in the 19th century to Christian conservatives and their progressive opponents in our own time.

Another unusual feature of the political tradition of consumer activism is that, although Americans boycott and buycott regularly, very few of these campaigns succeed. The use of coordinated economic pressure rarely forces companies to change policies, or politicians to alter positions. Boycotts are effective, however, in bringing public attention to an issue. Since 1999, for example, the NAACP has maintained a boycott of the state of South Carolina because a replica of the Confederate Battle Flag flies on the grounds of the State Capitol. Although the economic impact of the boycott has been negligible, this campaign has brought national publicity to the cause of flag opponents.

At a time when many commentators decry the weakening of American citizenship and blame this condition on the increasing commercialization of our culture, the history of consumer activism suggests another way of understanding the relationship between commerce and citizenship. The fact that so many Americans are not only ardent consumers but avid consumer activists suggests that they see consumption not only as a private pleasure but as a public good. At a time when cynicism about the political process is at an all-time high -- not least because politics has itself become increasingly commercial -- the enduring appeal of consumer activism is that it promises citizens, in their capacity as shoppers, a kind of power and responsibility that seem largely unavailable through conventional politics. Boycotting is and always has been politics by other means.

Lawrence B. Glickman teaches American history at the University of South Carolina. He is the editor of ''Consumer Society in American History: A Reader" and is currently writing, ''Use Your Buying Power for Justice: Consumer Activism in America from the Boston Tea Party to the Twenty-First Century."

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