The politics of shopping: Are consumer boycotts effective?
Holiday shopping season has begun, and so have the boycotts.
Trump protesters in United States have harnessed the #GrabYourWallet campaign to boycott brands that are affiliated with the President-elect's family and business.
Closer to home, there have recently been boycotts for palm oil, eggs and milk.
But are brand boycotts the most effective way to protest? Depends who you talk to.
Advocacy group GetUp say "a boycott is a meaningful way to up the ante when other methods have proven unsuccessful."
Kelsey Cooke, campaigns director of GetUp, said: "Governments are bound to represent their constituents – if they don't, they're often swiftly replaced. Companies, on the other hand, don't have any of the same checks and balances."
Digital strategist Shannon Coulter created the hash tag #grabyourwallet in October in response to Donald Trump's remarks about groping women. A fan of lists, Coulter wanted to give women the space to voice their objections and hit Planet Trump where it hurts – in the wallet.
In the US, #grabyourwallet supporters are urging major businesses such as Nordstrom, Amazon and Zappos to dump Trump product. Coulter created a Google Doc list that is updated every day and includes numbers for PR departments. Shoes.com pulled Ivanka Trump's collection a few days after the election. Interiors brand Bellacor dropped all Trump House items last week.
Brand boycotting has picked up in the recent decade. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Dr Daniel Diermeier, Provost to the University of Chicago and previously Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy, notes that most activists now focus on companies, instead of governments, as the main engine of social change.
"As the public raises its expectations about appropriate corporate conduct … more companies will find themselves in the cross-hairs more frequently," Diermeier says.
The #grabyourawllet boycott has spread slowly worldwide to countries like New Zealand, where consumers can access many of these companies with online shopping and international delivery. But since most of the companies are American, the boycott isn't quite having the same punch.
"To get a company's attention, a critical mass of individuals need to change their behaviour in concert," says Cooke. "To change a company's behaviour, the company needs to be aware that they're losing customers – and what action they would need to take to correct the trend. When that happens, the impact can be profound."
Across the Tasman in Australia, consumers recently protested large companies underpaying dairy farmers and organic labelling on organic eggs. In March this year, Choice launched its boycott of 19 supermarket "free range" egg brands, seeking to protect consumers from the "free range egg rip off".
"Choice initiated the boycott following the decision by Australia's consumer affairs ministers to sign off on a standard for free range that did not meet consumers expectations," says Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey.
"Put simply, we couldn't see why consumers should be paying a significant price premium for eggs labelled as "free range" that come from hens that don't go outside and have stocking densities up to 10,000 hens per hectare."
While chief executives at Amazon, Netflix, Starbucks, Grubhub and dozens of other major US brands have spoken out against Trump's policies and beliefs, few of them have committed to pulling tainted stock from their shelves. In fact, some caustic Trump supporters have in turn boycotted these companies, punishing them for speaking out against the President-elect.
"The rise of social media has made it easier than ever before for individual consumers to initiate informal boycotts of products and services and gain traction. That said, it's important to look at the motivation and substance of a boycott before blindly signing on to an action," says Godfrey.
The #grabyourwallet boycott has found focus in Ivanka Trump's line since she represents a certain type of affluent woman – likely to be offended by her father's attitude to women – with power to spend and influence social debate, and also digitally savvy.
Fast Company reported consumer interest in Ivanka Trump's brand has dropped by more than half since October 2016. This, a few days after she sparked outrage by hawking a $10,000 bracelet that she wore on her father's 60 Minutes interview. Last week Ivanka Trump, responding to a storm of criticism, separated her business account from her personal account on Twitter.
Has it been successful?
In the age of tailored newsfeeds and edited Twitter lists – and in the absence of hard sales figures – how can we know if a boycott has really worked?
According to Diermeier, for a boycott to be successful four factors must be considered: consumers must care passionately; the cost of participation must be low; issues must be easy to understand; and the mass media must be involved, separate to the interest generated on social media.
According to these markers #grabyourwallet has gained traction but it does show signs of slowing. The recent slump in sales for Ivanka Trump's line, as reported by Shophopper, pointed toward a soft victory, but the movement hasn't had much media coverage the last few days and seems to be struggling.
The organic eggs boycott in Australia, however, answered to these four markers. Choice recently published figures showing organic egg sales had increased for independent producers. Choice claimed it as a win for those producers.
"Companies can be slow beasts and resistant to change," says Cooke. "Boycotts are a way to demonstrate that consumers won't stand for irresponsible corporate behaviour – and speak in a language company directors understand. Until businesses change their ways, consumers will take their funds elsewhere."
- The Age