Should we buy into Buycott?

01 Sep 2014


One should assume our individual-purchasing power is akin to casting a vote. — File photo
One should assume our individual-purchasing power is akin to casting a vote. — File photo

On average, for the past month, most conversations quickly devolve into two broad themes: dharnas or Gaza. I have lost count of the number of times I have encountered the phrase ‘boycott Israel’ in the past month ever since airstrikes on Gaza have escalated.

It is also difficult to avoid the inherent conflict that we face on how — or to put it more accurately — how much, we Pakistanis should feel about the suffering of Palestinians.

There is no real standard barometer to quantify suffering or empathy. Yet, I have seen and read many opinion pieces and op-eds that tended to argue something either in the vein of ‘how can we afford to shed ‘crocodile’ tears over Gaza when there is so much violence wreaking havoc in Pakistan?’; or those arguing the unquestionable need for our united condemnation and yes, rage…against the slaughter of countless innocent lives in Gaza strip and the West Bank.

The fact is that this is a human rights issue and the loss of innocent lives, wherever and whenever it occurs, ought to be condemned and protested against. There is no ‘weighing’ of some lives against the other, when it comes to empathy.

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Is it true that our concern would be better placed if it were directed at what was happening in our own country? Perhaps. That, however, doesn’t mean one cannot feel for the suffering of others around the world. Framing empathy in an either/or matrix is a fundamentally flawed line of thinking.

I have personally received at least six different versions of a boycott-Jewish-products list in the last month. I’ve always viewed such a line of resistance with suspicion because for many people, such boycott lists inevitably become an excuse for anti-Semitism rather than anti-Zionism.

It is imperative that we all learn to distinguish Jews in general from Zionist Jews. To claim, as many Pakistanis do, that all Jews are Zionists is akin to claiming that all Muslims are terrorists. Apart from being an unsubstantiated claim, it is just plain ludicrous. In the same vein, I feel that one must distinguish between Jewish companies/products and companies that specifically operate from within or benefit Israeli settlements.

I decided to speak to a friend of mine who has worked on conflict management in Palestine and has also supported micro chapters of pro-Palestinian groups within Israel about the issue. She told me something interesting:

“Consumer awareness is like a double-edged sword, if one starts pressing too hard on one end, the other one bites back. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of what we are buying and how that affects the world. Only, becoming overzealous is also dangerous. One should start small, with your own daily, weekly and monthly purchases. Try and find out about what you’re buying and what (besides the product) the manufacturers are selling.”

I could see what she meant. Once one starts delving deeper into companies with dodgy histories, very few companies, if any, can truly, ethically stand upon close scrutiny. This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t make the effort.

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At the end of the day if ‘money makes the world go round’ then one should assume our individual-purchasing power is akin to casting a vote. Every time we buy something, we endorse a businessman, a company and a policy, as well as the product. And this means that we have the right to demand more from businesses in terms of ethics.

History has shown that economic boycotts are effective to a large degree. Simply put, companies tend to take consumers a lot more seriously when they are angry about something and stop buying, than governments are likely to do with disillusioned citizens demanding a change in policies. Less money means less business and such lowest common denominators are often an effective bottom line.

As Pakistanis, most of us, including myself, generally lack consciousness about what we buy. Given the state of affairs in Pakistan, we naturally have bigger concerns, but this doesn’t mean that consumer consciousness isn’t important for those of us who can afford it and know better.

After several discussions on the matter, another friend of mine suggested that I download the Buycott App on my phone (the app is available on android as well as the iPhone) and it has been an interesting experience.

The app allows one to list the human rights and business ethics causes they are interested in, as well as the ‘degree’ to which they support the cause.

On this premise, the app informs one of the ethical histories of different companies and brands on various issues. If information is power, than this is certainly an odd form of problematic purchasing power.

There are very, very few companies in the world with clean slates when it comes to ethics…because all companies essentially operate for profit.

That said, there is a human element at play here.

When one decides to purchase a product despite knowing that the company, say, refused to alter one of its more devious policies on an issue like child labour or illegal Israeli settlements; it tells us a lot about ourselves and our dependency on what we feel we cannot give up and why.

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There are many huge brands on the boycott list that one would naturally struggle with giving up.

Nestle is up there along with Coca Cola and Intel. So, how does one start? Do we stop using computers? Personally, I feel it is important to negotiate with this point. The average computer user buys a machine once every five or six years, whereas, we may buy a bottle of coca cola several times a week. It’s not an absolute. It’s not like one has to boycott all 100 products or nothing.

Why can we not start with what we can immediately relinquish and work our way from there?

Boycotting four out of seven problematic products is not relativism, because we do still ensure that those four companies are not getting our money. And the next time we buy a computer maybe we can look for alternatives, and if there aren’t any…maybe enough consumers can push companies to come up with ethical alternatives or change their current policies.

If nothing else, one hopes it will push some of us to buying locally made products. No matter how little one engages with the moral mathematics of their own purchasing power, I have come to learn that it is important to do so in some degree or other.

We are not mindless drones; those of us who can know better what they are buying owe themselves to find out more. It shows that we care enough to learn about what we are giving our money to; who we give our money to; how often and why.