On boycotts

So boycotts are fashionable again. I’ve been boycotting Starbucks since the early Noughties because of their aggressive business tactics; now I’m joined in that boycott by hordes of people who are unhappy because of the company’s attitude to tax. Now I know how Michaela Strachan felt when statement earrings came back into fashion: pleased, slightly righteous, and tempted to shout “I was doing it first!” a lot.

Three years ago, the idea of boycotting a company because of its tax affairs was not on most people’s radar. Ethical purchase choices aren’t new, but three years ago you’d be thinking about Fairtrade coffee beans or supporting small businesses, not wondering how much corporation tax the company paid last year. But public attitudes have changed, helped by the sterling work of UK Uncut. We’re seeing a link we didn’t see before: if company X diverts this amount of money into a Swiss bank account, that’s a sum of money we’re not going to get in the public coffers for hospitals or schools or roads.

When things were good, it didn’t seem to matter so much. But when your government is making cuts that ruin lives, in the name of saving money, it’s hard not to join the dots and look at less painful ways we could get that money.

But, unsurprisingly, there’s a school of thought that rejects the idea of boycotts. It goes something along the lines of:

There’s very little individual consumers can do to change things, and it’s just not an efficient use of your time and energy to keep identifying new tax-avoiders and boycotting them. It hurts you (by making your life less convenient) way more than it hurts them. If we want to stop corporate tax avoidance, the best way to do it is through stronger regulation. We need to close the legal loopholes that allow this stuff to happen, rather than trying to shame the big names. Also, this thing I need is much cheaper on Amazon...

I’m actually very sympathetic to this point of view, because the logic is hard to fault. It’s absolutely true that the effort involved in trying to identify and boycott tax-avoiding companies, as an individual customer, is totally out of proportion to the actual effect it has on the company when you withhold your £3 for a latte. The cost to you is huge; the cost to the company is negligible. It would undoubtedly be more efficient to simply put regulation in place that catches every company, not just the ones we’ve chosen to target this week.

But my own view is different. Firstly, there’s the reality of the situation. Yes, tighter regulation is absolutely the answer. But am I, or you, in any position to just make that happen? Yes, you can write to your MP, or join a protest, or start a protest. But do any of these activities have a better impact-to-effort ratio than a boycott?

Secondly, I think it’s a mistake to assume that boycotts happen instead of other actions, rather than in tandem with them. Organisations like UK Uncut are leading boycotts as part of a wider strategy which involves drawing public attention to tax avoidance and bringing it into the political mainstream. Now even the Daily Mail is running front-page stories naming and shaming the big tax-avoiders. The campaigning organisations do the spadework of examining company accounts, and they do a great job of boosting morale by making you feel part of a wider movement. My guess is that the people who are boycotting the big tax-avoiders, however patchily, are more likely to also write to their MP and so on, because they’re engaged with that wider movement. The decision to boycott definitely does not happen in isolation.

But my real reason for boycotting these companies? I just can’t bear not to. Maybe boycotting is a futile act, but that doesn’t mean that not-boycotting is a neutral act. When I decide not to buy a £5 book on Amazon, that decision makes almost no difference to Amazon. (I hesitate to say “no difference” in case people start shouting “butterfly effect!”, so I’ll just say it’s a homeopathic dose of difference.) Even if a campaigning organisation has just targeted Amazon as villain of the week and my decision is multiplied a thousand times by other UK customers, it still probably makes very little difference to Amazon. But you know who it makes a difference to? Me. That £5 is my money. I earned it and I paid tax on it. Do I want to spend it on a company that benefits from tax-funded roads, state-educated workers, tax-funded airports and so on, without paying its fair share in return? The answer is no, I sodding well don’t. I wouldn’t donate £5 to a charity that promised to make the world a subtly worse place; why the hell would I pay that same £5 to an organisation that implicitly promises to do the same thing, even if it’s a purchase rather than a donation? So I’ll look elsewhere for that book. Ideally, I’ll buy it from my nearest independent bookstore. Which probably means paying slightly more than £5, and waiting a few days for my husband to visit the shop in his lunch break. That £5 (or maybe £6) means almost nothing to Amazon, but it means slightly more to the guy who runs that independent bookstore. When we’re talking about all my book purchases over the course of a year, it adds up to a more significant sum. And he’ll be passing on a fair share of it to HMRC when tax time comes round. Or I could tell myself that “boycotts don’t work”, buy it from Amazon, feel irritated when it takes longer than expected to arrive, rinse and repeat over a few years and encourage all my friends to do the same by reinforcing the view that “boycotts don’t work”. That set of choices still wouldn’t make any noticeable difference to Amazon, even if I turned a hundred of my friends and neighbours into lifelong Amazon customers. But it might be enough to drive the independent book shop out of business. The opposite of boycotting is not doing nothing. The opposite of boycotting is continuing to fund businesses that do things you think are bad. That might mean extracting value from a country’s economy without putting little to nothing back, or it might be something else, like treating workers badly. The principle is the same: you’re giving your (hard-earned, post-tax) money to companies who do things you don’t like. I can understand the economic logic that says “I’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and worked out I’m effectively powerless, so Starbucks lattes all round!” I just don’t agree with it. My consumer choices might not make a difference in the scheme of things, but they matter to me.