Boycotts, the act of arranging a mass refusal to use a particular company’s product for a set period, are meant to protest the horrible conditions many workers are subjected to, usually to support the workers themselves striking. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, they can often devolve into little more than an excuse to shame the poor and disabled for being unable to participate in the boycott. Talking about this on social media usually results in a massive pile-on from people who refuse to think critically or see reason, and more often than not Black people are the targets of said abuse. After experiencing something along these lines quite recently, I decided to set out once and for all why people cannot always contribute to a boycott, and how this relationship between boycotts and ableism develops.
To be able to participate in a boycott, either it needs to be a non-essential product, or an equal alternative needs to be available. Boycotting a TV streaming service for transphobic content and actions is relatively easy; other services with equally good content are easy enough to find, and usually offer a free first month making it cheap to ditch one service for a month without paying a fortune. Boycotting an online superstore is possible but can be a little trickier, especially if that store offers products at better prices, with better delivery options, and hold something of a monopoly over the market. Boycotting a chain of pubs or shops in favour of independent venues is a great idea, provided I can actually enter the independent business’s premises. Boycotting a particular brand of food can, for many, be impossible.
In support of the recent workers strikes at cereal over-lords Kellogg’s, the public (and not the union as some were trying to claim) called for a boycott on their products. Since I don’t buy their overpriced cereals, it is up for debate whether I was participating by default. However, as many pointed out, food stamps and similar schemes often place restrictions on what can be purchased using those coupons, and these restrictions usually favour big-name brands. Similarly, the question was raised as to whether someone should turn down Kellogg’s cereal if it was offered to them, say at a food bank. Given the choice between Kellogg’s cereal and starving, why should someone disadvantaged still be expected to participate in the boycott?
Furthermore, boycotts on food manufacturers are usually going to have minimal results. All of the many brands and packets seen on supermarket shelves can be traced back to a handful of companies; chances are that the money made from the alternatives is ending up in the same greedy hands as before. Frankly, a boycott decreasing demand during a strike is probably a relief to the fat cats running these companies, if they even notice it at all. The internal squabbling as one disadvantaged group victimises another can only sweeten the deal.
There are plenty of ways to fight back against the tyranny of billionaires crushing their employees. Join unions. Sign petitions. Make sure that strikers are kept warm and fed. Go to protests. Talk about what really goes on behind closed doors in business. Push for tougher regulations and employment laws. Boycott if you can without making others suffer for it, and recognise that being in a position to do so carries an element of privilege. If there is going to be a universal boycott, then the one thing we must all learn to leave behind is the discrimination that holds others back.