Happy Shopping

174 - PackagesIn the September of 1880, County Mayo, Ireland, something different happened.

The harvest had been poor and the tenant farmers were struggling to be able to pay their rents and still feed their families. They asked for a 25% reduction, but the landlord refused, offering only 10%. When the tenants refused to pay the job of evicting them fell to the landlord’s agent, the unpopular English Magistrate Captain Charles Boycott.

But rather than fight back, the farmers collectively decided to shun Captain Boycott. His farm labourers stopped harvesting the crops on his farm. His servants left his house and stables, leaving no one to wash his laundry, cook or shoe his horses. Local stores and businesses refused to sell to him, and the postman even refused to deliver his mail.

It didn’t take long for Captain Boycott to admit defeat and three months later he had to be escorted out of Ireland by the 19th Hussars for his own safety. The army also had to provide the driver for the carriage because no one else would do it, and by Christmas the British press were already using the word ‘boycott’ to mean organised ostracism.

Have you ever Boycotted anything ?

It’s a depressing truth that most of us will probably affect the world more, for good or ill, by how we choose to spend our money, than by anything else we do. Freely choosing not to financially support a particular individual, group or company because you disagree with some aspect of their behaviour seems to me entirely reasonable, as is publicising your cause and attempting to convince others to join you. Of course others may feel your boycott is unfair or uninformed, and perhaps organise some form of counter boycott or protest – such is life in a free society.

But in general I’m not a big fan of organised Boycotts.

It’s not that I’m opposed to boycotts in principle – it’s just that they all too often seem to provoke unnecessary venom and hatred between the protagonists. They can often also seem very indiscriminate to me – is it really right to boycott everything grown in Israel because of how their government treats Palestinians, or refuse to buy anything French because of nuclear testing in the Pacific two decades ago ? In addition many boycotts strike me as simply one-sided, unfair or overly simplistic – after all what about the poor treatment of other minorities or nationalities by other countries, or everyone else’s nuclear testing ?

I also find that very often the most vocal critics of particular companies or organisations are perfectly happy to buy and use products from other companies with equally questionable records. After all it is difficult, if every purchase we made was 100% consistent with our ethical views life would become very hard. There are many policies of the Chinese, US and for that matter the UK government I don’t agree with – but my phones made in China, I rely on Google to organise my life, and I also advocate buying local wherever reasonably possible. Being an ethical consumer is complicated ?

Though I’m suspicious of organised boycotts (though there are several I DO support), I do think we all need to engage with the consequences of how we spend our money, both by educating ourselves, and by having the character to make principled decisions as a result.

The magazine Ethical Consumer have recently been running a boycott Amazon campaign, in protest at the very small amount of tax paid by Amazon in the UK compared to its profits – according to their website Amazon currently pay tax at a rate of 0.1%.

My views on this are typically conflicted.

Not paying a fair rate of tax is essentially the rich keeping wealth for themselves instead of distributing it with wider society. I know this is simplistic, that certainly not all public spending is directed at the poor and what is ‘fair’ is ultimately subjective, but many would broadly agree with this sentiment.

On the other hand I know that’s not Amazon’s fault. Governments are responsible for designing the tax system, and they simply haven’t found a good way to regulate an increasingly global and digital economy. Companies in fact have a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders – why would they voluntarily pay a national government more tax than they were required to ?

Lately the UK government, along with many others, have been talking tough on the topic of tax avoidance – but little seems to have actually changed, and in the meantime individual choice, though important, is no substitute for proper regulation.

So what to do . . . ?

Regular visitors to Nextstarfish might have noticed that the site now looks a little different . The Amazon links for books and DVDs have now disappeared. While I’m not exactly boycotting Amazon, I don’t feel comfortable engaging with them to sell through my site anymore. I’ve also removed my Amazon store links and am in the process of closing them down. On a personal level I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime and Amazon MP3 memberships, though if I’m honest I didn’t really use them all that much anyway, and probably should have done it a while ago just to save myself some money. I probably will still order from Amazon from time to time, but will also try harder to find things elsewhere first.

Most importantly I’ve sent the Government an email urging quicker action on fair tax reform.

So am I boycotting Amazon ?

No, not exactly – but I think I can make some better choices, more in line with my beliefs.

I’m not advocating anyone else blindly do the same, we all have to decide these things for ourselves – but if we want to ‘do more good’ with our lives I do think it’s important we keep ourselves informed about the companies and organisations we give our money to and the consequences that result.

We should also try to find time to wrestle with the personal ethical challenges that emerge.

Happy shopping.

 

(Agree, disagree, want to ask a question or share a story ? Please post a comment – all polite, open debate is welcome)

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Photo by Mark Falardeau (creative commons), via Flickr

Comments

  1. Dear NS

    As ever, an interesting read to challenge the views of all sides of the debate. It ties in with your last post over the challenge of finding the facts on which to base our views. I agree that Amazon, Starbucks and Google et al are merely doing what they can to keep themselves as rich as possible. That is the aim of nearly every private sector company. It is the role of national government and organisations such as G8 and G20 to ensure there is no option but to pay fair tax levels or risk not trading. I certainly have never called HMRC and suggested I should pay more tax, and I doubt most people have either.

    I would suggest most boycotting comes after a piece of investigative journalism highlights a story. But again, we must be careful to engage in the debate with information than to jump on the last carriage of the bandwagon.

    China still enforces abortions for expectant women with one child. Is this worse than Amazon seeking a tax loophole? Surely the developed world should boycott trade with China immediately? I presume Russian oil will soon become an unfavoured trade commodity for their views on homosexual sex education? Unlikely.

    In a trade driven world boycotting is a powerful tool, but should be accompanied by positive actions and lobbying. If every person that boycotts Amazon offered a free hour of their time to a charity, then the positive act would provide an equally powerful statement as well as creating a positive groundswell. Imagine if we as a country supported socially and environmentally conscious companies in the same way we supported the Olympics, for example.

    I think boycotting has its place. But further down the list than policy to drive international equity of welfare underpinning socially acceptable trade.

    Mr Cameron, what are your thoughts?

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