The Ecologist’s boycott advice

The Ecologist is probably the best environmental magazine here in the UK - it’s got hard-hitting and relevant news about the environmental situation without too much of the quasi-spiritual stuff you find in certain other eco-mags. It also has features on different consumer products and how they impact on people’s health as well as the environment - this month it’s the ongoing threat of expanding water flouridation, and over-fishing, and the hidden nasties in one of Johnson’s “No More Tears” baby products.

What I can never get my head around, though, is its advice on consumer boycotts. The advice comes through a website called Karmabanque which specialises in “smart boycotts”, boycotts which are aimed at hurting a company’s share price rather than just acting on emotion. The latest target is Coca-Cola: it’s unhealthy (an entire day’s quota of sugar) and raises the risk of diabetes, the company supplies toxic fertiliser to farmers in Kerala, they allegedly hire hit squads to terrorise workers in Colombia, they make deals to put their logos on baby bottles, there was an incident of racism in their Atlanta factory, and they don’t provide enough AIDS education to their African employees. This last one strikes me as rather odd given that this is not really an employer’s job - it’s the government’s.

They advise us not to bother boycotting Microsoft, Citigroup, DreamWorks (Steven Spielberg’s company) and ExxonMobil. Apparently, our boycotts aren’t enough to hurt any of these companies, particularly ExxonMobil:

This is the most pointless boycott we track. Sure, the company is thinking about changing its logo to ‘amortising dead Iraqi babies every day for you’, but activists are wasting their time with this boycott. It takes five times as many boycotters to remove $1 of Exxon’s market capitalisation as it does to remove $1 from Coke’s. It’s tough, but we’ll just have to sit by, wait and watch as hookers, drug dealers, taxi drivers and, of course, bankers in the tiny country of São Tomé (population: 150,000) experience a serious windfall. (Rest of ramble about how awful they are omitted.)

The thing is that by not boycotting ExxonMobil you’re not “sitting by”; you’re letting this company have your dollars or pounds or whatever, and the whole point of a boycott is to make sure they don’t get your money. No, your boycott of Esso or Exxon is not going to make much difference to them, but it means you are less guilty of helping them. Then again, none of the oil companies have a great environmental reputation.

As for Microsoft, there is a very good reason not to buy their products, which is simply that they don’t work properly. Windows XP is three years (or more) old and infamous for its security holes. Linux, on the other hand, is cheaper than Windoze (for our purposes, Linux means Novell’s SUSE package) and contains a huge range of software including a freely-available office package. Novell, and SUSE before them, have released an updated Linux package every few months, to keep up with the developments in the component software. The Linux software which was on offer in 2001 is considered very old today, and the system has advanced both in appearance and what goes on underneath. I also bought a Mac, precisely because it was a good medium, with the security of a Unix-based system, but with a range of commercial applications, the lack of availability of which is still a problem for Linux. Still, surely the government should be investing in remedying the latter problem given that MS’s insecurity is as vulnerable to compromise for terrorist reasons as for the issuing of spam and for silly pissing contests between virus writers.

I can’t see how some of the companies listed on the “Boycott Vulnerability Rating” chart (page 15 of this month’s Ecologist) have the slightest vulnerability anyway. Ryanair (OK, you can still get the ferry to Ireland, or the train to Europe if you’ve got the time to spare), Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (in fourth and twelth places, respectively - if you want to boycott them, make sure you don’t get ill), UST (9th; who?), Abercrombie and Fitch (18th; do they even operate in the UK?). Caterpillar is 39th (notable for making the Israelis’ demolition machines; boycott their boots, but just remember your principles when you need a big digger or an engine for that Foden truck), while GAP is inexplicably 40th, which is strange given that they make more out of retail than Esso.

We as Muslims have our own reason to boycott certain companies, of course, and a lot of authorities tell those of us outside the USA not to make any unncessary purchases from the US, something I’m pretty strict about keeping to (with some exceptions, notably for IT-related stuff), even though my country sends troops into the US’s wars as well. But I think that this magazine is mixing up not buying a company’s products because they’re no good with an ethically-based boycott, and one questions why they feature boycotts which have nothing to do with the environment anyway (CitiGroup, DreamWorks).

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