The trouble with Boycotts…

…is that they can be so difficult to do properly.

I first started thinking about this some weeks ago, when a colleague chastised me for eating a KitKat.

“Nestle, Dave?” she remarked. “I thought you were better than that.”

This throwaway line was something of a rude awakening for me, as I’m quite happy to make proclamations on the moral suitability of various behaviours to anyone who’ll listen. This time, I was in the cross-hairs. It was uncomfortable.

  • Firstly, I realised that I was oblivious to the origins of my biscuity snack. A cursory examination of the wrapper would have revealed a Nestle logo to me, but of course, I had made no such examination.
  • Secondly, I realised that I didn’t clearly understand what was wrong with eating a Nestle product. I had some vague awareness of wrongdoing around infant formula, but couldn’t produce a single specific.
  • Thirdly – and most disturbingly – I realised that despite considering myself a principled person, I was shopping with my eyes closed and potentially enriching exactly the kind of organisations I would publicly decry.

Of course, I subsequently did a little research on good ole Nestle. The list of misdeeds attributed to them range from violating World Heath Organisation codes on the promotion of infant formula, through supporting rapacious deforestation in South America, to the purchase of supplies from plantations which use child labour. It’s pretty substantial stuff, but none of it is particularly new. I was simply ignorant of it.

I let this information percolate in my brain for a while, before deciding that I was going to give Nestle a wide berth in future. I was pretty sure it would be a simple task – I don’t really drink coffee anymore and I could live without KitKats. Job done.

How wrong I was.

This handy little list of Nestle brands, courtesy of Wikipedia, divulged the true scale of what I was attempting. The company produces multiple products which I buy regularly or on occasion, all without ever noticing anything beyond the marquee brand plastered on the outer packaging.

  • Much as I love the idea of wholegrain cereals, Shredded Wheat is now off the menu – as are Shreddies.
  • A host of mineral water brands, many of which I’ve grabbed from petrol forecourts during one road trip or other, are now forbidden: Buxton, Perrier, Vittel to name a few.
  • In the ‘fat man’s indulgence’ category, Haagen Daz, After Eights and Smarties are among a long list of casualties.
  • Perhaps most painful of all, I can no longer purchase Go-Cat for the wee man. How will I explain to him the ethical pitfalls of his beloved salmon-flavoured biscuits?

I’m still coming to terms with the lifestyle shift which lies ahead of me.

This is, I realise, a symptom of the world we live in, where vast mega-global corporations hoover up popular brands, in order to multiply the routes our money can take to their bottom lines. There are other companies with track records just as ignominious as Nestle’s; even if I strike every one of the products I’ve mentioned above from our household shopping list, how can I be sure I’m not lining the pockets of some other corporate monstrosity?

It was time for some more research. Some quick searching of da intarwebz produced a handful of sites dedicated to helping us make informed choices, the most prominent of which was www.ethicalconsumer.org. It works on the principle that brands can be scored out of 20 on the basis of their ethical value, measured against five key areas:

  • Environment
  • Animals
  • People
  • Politics
  • Product Sustainability

The user simply navigates to the particular category of products in which they are interested, whereupon they will be presented with a live-updated list of brands in scoring order, from highest to lowest. If one values a particular key area more highly that the others,  it’s possible to increase the weighting of that area in the scores being displayed: so if you only care about Environment and Animals, you can tweak the scoring to reflect only those things. I’ve only played around a little with the site’s features, but it seems pretty simple to use.

It’s much easier to work with a ‘safe list’ of brands than to try and mentally run-through a screed of prohibited products every time one walks into the supermarket. I am a relative newcomer to the idea of ethical purchasing – but I’ll be using tools like www.ethicalconsumer.org to inform my choices in the future.

Ultimately, our best recourse when we oppose the actions of corporations is to hit them in the pocket. My custom alone is small beer to such faceless giants, but I’ll feel 100 times better for having withdrawn it.

3 thoughts on “The trouble with Boycotts…

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