The Blog

Boycotts Rarely Work the Way We Hope

The question: How do we insure that Bangladesh textile factories are safe? The answer: You get yourself an incorruptible, on-site champion of industrial safety.
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Following the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which (at last count) killed 1,127 factory workers, several of the world's leading apparel and retail companies got together to adopt a new set of safety rules, assuring that such a disaster (the worst accident in apparel history) wouldn't happen again.

Because the accident was, allegedly, the result of shoddy construction and management negligence, these companies faced a dilemma. Fearing consumer backlash, do they simply pull out of Bangladesh all together and set up shop in a more expensive venue, proving to their customers that human life means more to them than making a quick buck?

Or do they weather the storm and stay put, gambling that by signing on to a new "safety manifesto" they can both show good faith and maintain their customer base? While pulling up stakes would be a splashy and effective public relations move, it could prove costly. Bangladesh is nothing if not a source of cheap, reliable labor.

Another fear was the threat of a consumer boycott. This has been discussed by various workers' rights groups, including some labor unions. These groups believe that the only way to get a company's attention is by hitting them in the pocketbook. But the problem with boycotting a particular brand name or, as has been suggested, any item bearing a "Made in Bangladesh" label, is that you hurt the wrong people.

Bangladesh's lifeblood is textiles. We've all heard of "company towns." Well, Bangladesh is a "company nation." Without plentiful jobs in apparel factories, it's no exaggeration to say that people's lives would not only be hurt, they would be ruined. And if a boycott were anywhere near successful, factories would be shut down and jobs would be lost. It's a double-edged sword.

During 1978-79 contract negotiations, the AWPPW (Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers) launched a West Coast boycott of Scott paper products in the hope of prying the company off its hard-line position at the bargaining table. Back in those days, Scott was viewed as an inordinately tough negotiator [Note: in the mid-1990s, Scott Paper was absorbed by the Kimberly-Clark Corporation]

Alas, the boycott worked too well. Scott's sales declined to the point where they were forced to shut down a couple facilities, resulting in the lay-off of several hundred union members. Even though the plants were eventually reopened, but the economic damage to working people's families was done.

Also, let's be clear. It's very hard to pull off a successful boycott. Unless, you've presented a genuinely compelling narrative, one that has enormous drawing power and resonates with consumers of every stripe, it ain't going to work. People simply don't like to be told what not to buy. They either resent it or are indifferent to it.

During the 1990s, we launched a boycott of Snapple beverages after learning that it was a major sponsor of Rush Limbaugh's radio show. While the boycott was, admittedly, poorly conceived and hastily put together, we were nonetheless stunned when people approached us and announced almost gleefully that they now intended to purchase Snapple products--even though they had never purchased them in the past. Why? Because we had told them not to. Go figure.

The question: How do we insure that Bangladesh textile factories are safe? The answer: You get yourself an incorruptible, on-site champion of industrial safety. You get someone whose sole concern is the welfare of working men and women. In short, you get yourself a labor union. Bangladesh needs labor unions. It's as simple as that.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor" 2nd edition), was a former union president.