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I Shop At Companies That Do Bad Stuff

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2017

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

On the list of companies I dislike, Amazon ranks near the top, for putting bookstores out of business everywhere and destroying the ability of authors and publishers to earn a living. Having fed itself to monstrous size on such small potatoes, the company has now moved on to gut the rest of Main Street retail and cut the heart out of communities everywhere.

And yet I shop at Amazon. My lame excuse is that it’s now a 25-minute drive to the nearest independent bookstore, it’s convenient to have a book turn up at my door, and the price looks right.

This inconsistency isn’t just an issue for left-leaners like me. Starbucks faced a right-wing boycott early this year when it responded to President Trump’s immigration ban with a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees. But new research by Brayden King at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management shows “zero correlation” between public commitments to that boycott and subsequent purchasing behavior by pro-Trump consumers. That is, our failure to vote with our wallets crosses political lines. (United at last!)

Withholding our cash from companies that cause harm or behave badly is one of the few avenues of protest we have as consumers. So why are we so bad at boycotting?

There are hundreds of explanations for our inconsistency, according to Julie Irwin, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies ethical consumerism. “It’s just really hard to think about this stuff,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable; people need to get on with their day. It’s not that they don’t care. People who care more are often more inconsistent with their values. It just upsets them more.”

One problem with boycotts is that they generally start with a company employee blurting out some egregious offense to our sensibilities. Usually it’s the dimwit chief executive opening his mouth to expose his reptilian brain. Think about Guido Barilla publicly scoffing in 2013 at the notion that his company, the world’s largest pasta maker, would ever feature a same-sex family in its advertising. Or recollect almost anything that the former Uber boss Travis Kalanick has ever said or done.

The resulting boycotts may seem effective. Mr. Kalanick was out of a job soon after the #DeleteUber campaign early this year. And the furor against Barilla didn’t just elicit a mortified apology from Mr. Barilla. His company also undertook enough remedial action to earn a 100 rating just a year later in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index. (It’s still at 100 today.) But these success stories typically have less to do with consumer purchasing power than with the sharp bite of bad publicity.

Outrageous remarks by executives tend, in any case, to be largely a distraction. They catch our attention and trigger our emotions. Meanwhile, we get bored and look away from the dull crimes companies commit every day, like Wells Fargo foisting phony accounts and unwanted auto insurance on its customers. Like Mylan gouging patients and government health care programs with a 500 percent markup on EpiPens. Like Volkswagen selling “clean diesel” cars that ran clean only long enough to fool emissions testing equipment. Like Exxon funding climate change disinformation. We are terrible, that is, at boycotting business as usual.

Ms. Irwin admits, for instance, to having test-driven an Audi, manufactured by Volkswagen, after the 2015 revelation that the company systematically cheated its customers on “clean” diesel: “The sales guy said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I like it. But I’m mad at you guys,” and he said, ‘No, that was VW.’ He was trying to help me have that cognitive inconsistency, because we like to have these excuses so we don’t have to worry about it.”

She didn’t buy it. But plenty of other customers did. Heavy discounting helped make scandal-ridden Volkswagen the world’s largest automaker in 2016. We do better, Ms. Irwin says, when our ethical issues happen to line up with things we don’t actually like. “Then we can say, ‘Oh, I never eat liver,’ ” she said.

So how do we make our boycotts more effective? How do we avoid wasting energy on the foot-in-mouth moments of dunderheaded executives and instead act on weightier issues? One answer is to accept that boycotts are about publicity, not consumer choice, and advertise wonky ethical positions like any other product: in vivid emotional terms.

The film “Blackfish” didn’t just attack SeaWorld for keeping orca whales in captivity. It made Tilikum, taken from the wild in 1983 and kept in captivity until his death early this year, the personification — the whale-ification — of that issue. Likewise, Jimmy Kimmel didn’t just add another set of charts to the health insurance debate. He held up a picture of his infant son born with a heart defect and reshaped the debate in terms of how proposed changes would affect kids like his.

Large-scale institutional forces can also ameliorate the frustrated consumer’s abiding sense of inconsistency. I can’t swear off heating oil just yet, but I can support the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has persuaded institutions worth $5.5 trillion to shed at least some fossil fuel investments. I can also divest individually, in my retirement account, with the help of socially responsible mutual funds, which have lately proliferated, some with impressive results. (The website Fossil Free Funds allows investors to scan their holdings for hidden fossil fuel investments. And it’s not just about climate change: A start-up called Motif Investing now also enables investors to construct a portfolio aligned more or less precisely with their individual values.)

Am I actually doing these things? Only partly. I have begun the process with my retirement account and will complete it by year’s end.

I’m not under the delusion that the investment choices of people like me are going to cause financial harm to socially irresponsible companies, any more than participating in a boycott would. But I like the idea of helping to move those companies into the pariah class.

It’s partly about helping me sleep better. But mostly, it’s about making the managers of those companies sleep worse.

 

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2 Responses to “I Shop At Companies That Do Bad Stuff”

  1. Jill Whitney said

    I think your observation about “vivid emotional terms” rings true. We humans tend to absorb abstract information better when it’s encased in a moving story of an individual.

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