Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Consumer activism is futile - updated

I wrote a post two years ago in which I posited that consumer activism, including boycotts, is futile. I'll excerpt part of the post here:

The nature of a market economy is to produce the cheapest, most attractive, and most marketable products to maximize consumer demand, beat the competition, and make a lot of profit. The goal of a market economy is not to create the highest quality, most durable, most efficient or overall best product, unless those attributes come about as a side effect of marketability, cheapness, attractiveness and/or profitability.

If a large enough group of consumers boycotts a particular product for some humanitarian or ethical reason, they might succeed in changing some aspect of its production, but during the boycott they will probably end up spending at least some of their money on something equally objectionable. Therefore, the group has not succeeded in creating the kind of systemic change that may have been their goal. And if not everyone participates, and by everyone I mean a majority of consumers, or at least enough to make a product’s manufacture unprofitable, then there is no incentive for the company to change its behavior.

Take the current boycott of Wal-Mart by labor and human rights activists. These same activists probably shop at Target or K-Mart or any number of large grocery stores or big box chains that do exactly the same kind of damage to the local economy that Wal Mart does, except perhaps on a smaller scale. Labor activists protesting Wal-Mart need to find a union grocery store where they can do their grocery shopping. Fine, the workers at the grocery store are represented by a union, but what about the people who make the products on the shelves? And how are Wal-Mart’s profits doing?

I'd like to extend this argument to those of us in the GLBT community who have an understandable urge to lash out at companies that supported Proposition 8. We can choose not to patronize businesses that don't support our values, but we cannot expect that doing so will effect fundamental change at said businesses.

Let's look at the brewing boycott of Cinemark Theatres. Apparently, one of the owners of Cinemark supported Proposition 8, and gave money to the effort. To protest this, many gay activists are refusing to go see the movie Milk, about gay activist Harvey Milk, at Cinemark theatres. An interesting response, and one that I don't think really gets us where we need to be.

By the logic of consumer activism, that is, either boycotting or supporting certain consumer goods based on social activist criteria, the boycott of Cinemark is a little bit strange. Cinemark is showing a movie that celebrates the gay rights movement. Yet, an executive at Cinemark supported Proposition 8. The logic of consumer activism actually suggests two mutually contradictory tactics: 1) boycott Cinemark, thus denying a company revenue for opposing marriage equality, or 2) Purposely see the movie Milk at a Cinemark theatre to make a point to the owners of Cinemark that they should be nicer to their gay clientele.

Of the two tactics, I would almost argue that the most productive one is to actually go see Milk at a Cinemark theatre, to show the company that it does have gay clientele and that it should do more to cater to us. Yet, the market has already dictated that Cinemark will cater to us. Cinemark is already showing Milk at its theatres, regardless of the views of whatever executive it was who supported Proposition 8. Surely, if Cinemark were an anti-gay company, they wouldn't show Milk at all. So what do we do?

My point is this. Boycotting any company that supported Proposition 8 won't really accomplish anything, except perhaps to deny a company a small amount of revenue. And when companies lose revenue, who gets hurt? Low wage workers who have nothing to do with the overall politics of the company itself. And in trying to find politically acceptable alternatives to the companies targeted for boycott, you might end up doing more harm than good. Let me give you an example. Say you boycott grocery store A because its CEO supported Prop 8. So you start shopping at grocery store B. What you don't know is that grocery store A only stocks fair trade coffee, and its workers are unionized. Grocery store B pays its workers minimum wage and does not stock fair trade coffee. Thus, you may be making a statement about gay rights, but you're also hurting workers and coffee farmers.

Our efforts are best spent challenging bad laws in the courts, fighting for legislation to encode marriage equality into state and federal law, and advocating in the media and the public square for our rights. Consumer boycotts only confuse the issue and waste valuable resources that should be spent on advocacy and grassroots organizing.

I'm not saying that anyone should purposely shop at a company that supported Proposition 8. That's a matter of personal choice. I am saying that we shouldn't waste our time trying to organize a massive boycott, because they really don't accomplish what we'd like to think they accomplish.