The Humanist Dilemma: Should I Boycott My Favorite Merchant?

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Shop or Drop? I just heard about a boycott of one of my favorite stores because a top executive is a big supporter of an unpopular elected official. Although I am opposed to that official, I really love this business, where I have shopped happily for decades. They have solid products and great service, and my frequent purchases there earn me significant discounts.

I’m not convinced boycotting this company is the way to oppose the policies of a politician I don’t like. Am I being selfish because I don’t want to give up shopping there?

—Haven’t Used Up All My Coupons Yet


Dear Coupons,

I’m glad you didn’t name the store (or the official) because I’d like to discuss this in terms of general principles rather than the particulars of this specific case.

I’m not a fan of boycotts. Very often the reasons for them are misguided, such as picking on any company that happens to be based in a country that has some policies some may find unjust (I’m thinking of Israeli companies that actually employ many Palestinians domestically and hundreds of locals at plants in other countries, including the United States). In the case you’re citing, one executive publicly supports the official you don’t like. What about all the other employees? Do they deserve blanket punishment because they happen to work there, regardless of how they voted?

Boycotts can do a lot of damage, which is what they’re all about. But that damage entails unintended consequences that are often ignored. Rank and file workers, who have no say in the issues motivating the boycott, can sacrifice raises, promotions, hours, or even their jobs and benefits if the company hits the skids. Wounding a company or bringing it down completely causes a ripple effect, wiping out livelihoods for the employees, the surrounding communities, the supplier companies, etc. The people hurt the least, if at all, are the top executives, who have huge salaries and perks, and, if they are forced out, golden parachutes for a cushy landing.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it’s just plain un-American to do harm to anyone because of which politician they support. This is supposed to be a democracy, where each of us is free to vote as we choose, without reprisals. How would you like it if this company decided not to accept any more orders from you because of how you voted? Isn’t boycotting because of political leanings not all that different from refusing to serve customers because of their race, faith, or gender?

There are some businesses that deserve censure because of policies that are flagrantly discriminatory or otherwise deplorable, or because of faulty, fraudulent, or dangerous products or practices. But consumer boycotting is rarely the most strategic response. In some cases, people don’t routinely use the products or patronize the businesses in the first place, so what is the impact if all they do is say they are boycotting? It’s far more effective to send messages to the company, to legislators, or to news outlets, flagging their bad behavior and calling for explicit corrective action. Regarding the company in question, how an executive voted is personal. And if the issue is actually that person’s donations, that’s what needs to be addressed, specifically. A boycott is a sledgehammer when a scalpel would be a more appropriate tool.

Boycotting also smacks of bullying (i.e., “Anyone who’s not with us is against us!”). And shunning a company you rely on may hurt you more than them. A drop in business might cause them to raise prices or cut back on what they offer. On the other hand, you might be sitting on the sidelines boycotting while other people jump in to support the very issue the boycott decries, as happened with Chick-fil-A and its opposition to same-sex marriage. The publicity generated by a boycott is as likely to help as harm the target.

Ideally, business entities should not take sides in partisan politics, regardless of what their individual employees may do, and customers should not react to organizations based on employees’ personal views. Not only is it fine for you to ignore the boycott, you might even want to make a point of shopping there now in resistance to it. To paraphrase English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, you may not agree with how someone in a company votes, but you defend their right to do it.