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Boycotts - Good or Bad?

by Kyle Scheihagen
August 20, 2005

Boycotts – Good or Bad?

I don’t see how even the most mildly conscientious person could knowingly eat slave-produced chocolate. I, for one, certainly will not do so again. What this means, though, in effect, is a boycott. Seems like a reasonable idea, but is it?

It has been argued by some that a boycott would do more harm than good. That argument runs as follows: if we boycott, say, all Hershey products because they are made with some slave-farmed cocoa, we will unintentionally punish the larger number of farmers who sell cocoa to Hershey but don’t use slave labor. This would then exacerbate poverty in the affected cocoa growing regions, which could, in toto, mean worse problems for the people of those regions than the slavery that already exists. Instead then, they say, we must forego boycotts, and stick to pressuring the offending companies by other means – letter writing campaigns, protests, and the like.

This argument, to me, seems stupid on its face. An argument against boycotts is, implicitly, an argument for the continued purchase of the tainted products, which is as good as an argument for inaction. It doesn’t require much cynicism – rather, it only takes some healthy realism – to realize that the chocolate industry will be utterly unmoved by any letter writing campaign if such a campaign is not accompanied by a loss in profits. These people are exploiting slavery, after all; they are unlikely to be swayed by mere appeals to their collective conscience.

No, some form of boycott is absolutely critical to forcing reform. If they begin to lose profits, and the loss is accompanied by a clear knowledge of the cause of the loss – i.e., their perverted business practices – then, and only then, will they feel obliged to change those practices. So, while letter writing, for example, is absolutely necessary – it is one of the best means by which to inform them of why they are losing business – it must go hand-in-hand with a boycott to ensure that they actually do lose business.

But what of the argument that the boycott will hurt ethical farmers in the slavery- infected regions? Well, of course it can’t be dismissed, but I think that here we will actually be aided by the complacency and ignorance of the average chocolate consumer. A total nationwide boycott of slave-produced chocolate might, indeed, have the effect of punishing the already poor producers of non-tainted cocoa, but there is no reason at all to think that such a comprehensive boycott would ever come off. Sad as it is, people in general give little concern to their fellow man, especially when the “man” in question is some poor farmer many thousands of miles away. Even if we publicize our boycott aggressively – which we should – there will still be many consumers too apathetic or distracted to join it. The major chocolate companies, then, will not be utterly destroyed, which is fine, because that is not really our goal.

Instead, the boycott will necessarily be somewhat limited – limited to those with the wits and will to take action. Gradually, then, as more and more chocolate consumers switch to Fair Trade and other ethically sourced chocolates, the unethical companies will notice a gradual, but not fatal, decline in their profits. They will continue to do business, then, and continue buying the cocoa of ethical farmers, but will eventually see the sheer venal self-interest in eliminating the unethical cocoa from their supply chains. Meanwhile, the money we do spend on chocolate will go to companies and farmers willing to earn the money morally.

The fact is, the cost of eliminating slavery from their supply chains is not prohibitive to companies like Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. It is far from a question of survival. According to Craig Sams of Green and Black’s, a British fair trade chocolate company, some companies "screw people to the wall for so little. By giving a 25 percent premium to growers, Green and Black's adds only 4 percent to the cost of each bar, but for the farmers that makes a huge difference."

The entire chocolate industry could eliminate slavery from their supply chains – they admitted as much by signing the failed Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001 – but they simply don’t want to cut into their profits. The key, then, is to make using slavery less profitable than not using it. Only a boycott can do that. By dropping sales only a few percentage points, we could force the industry to end chocolate slavery forever.

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