Wednesday 11 August 2021

To Boycott or Not to Boycott, That is the Question

When we discuss ethical and sustainable living, the conversation inevitably comes around to boycotts. Should we do it? Does it actually have an impact? Who is it accessible to? What brands should we be boycotting at all? They’re a tricky subject, and one which often gets taken quite personally. Sometimes it can feel as if the companies you choose to boycott or not can determine the moral character people ascribe to you. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. 

There is a whole lot of privilege that needs unpacking in the discussion around ethical and sustainable fashion. There is absolutely no doubt that most ethical and sustainable brands are inaccessible for lots of people for a variety of reasons, from financial, to geographical, research time, and a whole load of other factors. But really the people to whom more ethical and sustainable choices aren’t available to are not the ones causing the problem. And they’re the ones who need to change. 


In his book We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses the effectiveness of individual action when it comes to climate change, highlighting that ‘although it may be a neoliberal myth that individual decisions have ultimate power, it is a defeatist myth that individual decisions have no power at all. Both macro and micro actions have power, and when it comes to mitigating our planetary destruction, it is unethical to dismiss either, or to prolim that because the large cannot be achieved, the small should not be attempted’ (p.200). I certainly agree with this, and the importance of both individual and collective action is often discussed by slow fashion campaigners such as Aja Barber. Throughout her work, Aja has highlighted how it is the people with spare income who uphold the unethical systems like fast fashion. That’s most certainly not people who are only buying clothes when they absolutely need to and cannot afford anything other than the cheapest fast fashion – it’s the people spending large amounts on regular Shein hauls and then only wearing those outfits a handful of times before they chuck them in the bin. If you can spend £100+ on fast fashion hauls every month or more, you can afford to buy more ethically and you definitely need to slow down your consumption.


I don’t particularly like the phrase ‘vote with your money’. It puts pressure on everyone to be constantly making perfect purchasing choices when not everyone has the same power to vote with their money as a result of quite extreme wealth disparities. However, this can also be flipped to show us who exactly are the ones who need to be taking more action. Simply because of that disparity in monetary voting power, we know who needs to make changes the most - the people with the disproportionate power. 


With the climate crisis getting worse daily, the whole situation is overwhelming, and it can seem like you making one change will be nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if done as a collective these actions can have real change. To me, boycotting alone is not the answer. And for things like fast fashion, we need to be targeting brands at all sides: putting pressure on them to protect their workers (which you can do currently for brands who have not yet committed to renewing the Bangladesh Accord) and by boycotting their products. We’re at the stage in the climate crisis where we cannot simply do one thing and pat ourselves on the back as a ‘well done me I did a good thing today’. These actions must come altogether and we must be relentless to make change. 


As Safran Foer also discusses in We Are the Weather, ‘individual consumer choices can activate a “complex, recursive dynamic” – collective action – that is generative, not paralyzing’ (201). While I’d prefer to use the language of citizens instead of consumers to highlight our intrinsically political nature, the point that individual actions make up collective movements is an important one to remember. As individual people doing our best to make the world better, ‘we are the internal drivers of change’ (WATW, 200), and ultimately isn’t that the end goal?


So the answer to the title question? Absolutely yes, do boycott if you have the means to do so (which most people reading this probably do). Brands are affected by the money we spend with them. Their money is what matters to them, not their values. If you withhold your money from them for ethical reasons, they are more likely to change to get that money back. Even if you still continue to buy from some unethical brands, try to think more about what and how you’re buying, and actively aiming to slow down your consumption and to buy things you know you love and will wear for years. Again, quoting Aja Barber (if you’re not listening to everything she says already, what are you doing?) everyone can slow down, it costs you nothing. 

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If you liked this post you might like: 5 Easy Ways You Can Show Support to Garment Workers

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