World Cup in Qatar, Shell, Danone or Nike: the questions raised by boycotts

For several months, the idea of ​​a boycott of the World Cup in Qatar has gained ground. In France, several mayors have recently announced that their city will not broadcast the event on giant screens as usual. Various personalities announce that they will not go or follow the event. Every day, journalists also invite athletes and political figures to take a stand. And at the bistro, fans discuss whether or not to do without the pleasure of seeing good matches.

In the book Consumer sociology, Ana Perrin-Heredia and myself retrace the numerous links between consumption and politics. One of the possible links between the two terms is boycotts.

A term born in 19th century Ireland

In the Irish countryside of the late nineteenthe century, Charles C. Boycott, steward in the service of a wealthy landowner, excessively increased the rents of the peasants attached to his land. This conduct causes the expulsion of the latter, yet already weakened by famine.

An Irish nationalist leader then proposed to the families concerned and, more broadly, to all the inhabitants of these regions (traders, employees, etc.) to ostracize CC Boycott, that is to say to refuse any daily contact with him. . The proposal is then extended to all landowners increasing their rent as well as to peasants taking over the land of the expelled. A journalist of the time then created the antonomasia « boycott », transforming this family name into a common name, to designate these modes of action.

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If today this term most often refers to the refusal to maintain commercial relations with a company, for all that, not all boycotts relate to commercial products. For example, the year 1936 saw a major campaign to boycott the Berlin Olympics in several countries due to the rise to power of the Nazi regime.

More recently, at the request of Palestinian intellectuals and scholars, a boycott campaign called “Boycott Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) was launched. Since 2005, she has called for an economic, academic, cultural and political boycott of the State of Israel to protest against the colonization and occupation of Palestinian lands.

Today, it is the FIFA World Cup in Qatar that is being called for a boycott for countless reasons, including environmental and social ones (for example the number of workers exploited and killed to build the stadiums) .

From Rosa Parks to Danone

The boycott of transportation services offered by the Montgomery (Alabama) bus company in 1955 is one of the most famous boycotts in history.

One evening in December, an African-American seamstress named Rosa Parks sits at the front of a bus in one of the seats reserved for « white » passengers. There followed an incarceration for “disturbing public order” which became the starting point of a movement that lasted for more than a year.

Racialized users stop using the company’s services, encouraged by an association created by a pastor, Martin Luther King. The other users do not borrow them more, out of solidarity… or out of fear. Private vehicles come to play taxis on a large scale and the protesters hold on. Thirteen months later, the Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional. The boycott of a road transport service was therefore an important step in the context of a broader political mobilization, such as that of the American civil rights movement Civil Right Movement, suggesting how a form of protest consumption can contribute to bringing about claims beyond the disputed service alone.

In 1995, the NGO Greenpeace launched an international boycott action against the Anglo-Dutch oil company, Shell. At issue: the tanker’s plan to sink a storage platform off the North Sea, with a few thousand tonnes of oil on board. While the British activists are struggling to make themselves heard, the German members of the association are taking various actions, including resorting to a boycott of Shell service stations. In Germany, the success of the latter is such that Shell decides to repatriate its platform on dry land to dismantle it. There again, the boycott of a consumer product (here fuel), beyond national borders, makes it possible to weigh in the balance of economic power and to achieve environmental demands.

In the 2000s, the French company Danone planned to close various biscuit factories, deemed less profitable than its other activities, and therefore impacting its stock market value. At the announcement of factory closures, different forms of action are put in place at the initiative of unions and workers. Among the latter, a call for a boycott was launched, widely relayed and supported by several political figures.

Despite the media success of this mobilization, Danone does not bend. If the demands of the mobilized consumers did not succeed this time, the boycott contributed to permanently damaging the company’s brand image and to legitimizing the fight against « stock market layoffs », a fight that has not ceased since therefore, to gain legitimacy in the French political debate.

Collective and well-informed choices

What lessons can we draw from these boycotts? For the researchers Ingrid Nyström and Patricia Vendramin, what strikes first is the diversity of the actors involved: trade unions, politicians, NGOs, lawyers, representatives of the State as well as « ordinary » citizens. « .

We must therefore beware of relating (non-)consumption practices to the individual choices of consumers. Another lesson is that these mobilizations should not be called “new” or “alternative”. In many cases, they are based on old repertoires (scandalization, media coverage, legalization, etc.) and political institutions (politician, established associations, etc.).

Furthermore, it is important not to reduce the success or failure of a boycott to the achievement of a specific demand. Remember, the Danone boycott helps to legitimize political action against « stock market layoffs » in general, and has thus fueled the idea that the profits made by multinational shareholders when employees suffer from the crisis are illegitimate.

Finally, we can add that boycotts should not be too quickly associated with progressive and/or environmental causes, as evidenced by the boycott of Nike in 2018 by many American consumers furious that the brand chose African-American footballer Colin as its muse. Kaepernick – the first to kneel during the national anthem in support of the fight against police violence and discrimination against African-Americans.

A form of unequal protest

However, if engaged consumption constitutes an authentic mode of political action, these approaches remain unequal.

From a statistical point of view, recourse to a boycott in Europe is much more frequent in northern Europe first, then in western Europe, and much less in southern and eastern Europe.

Similarly, and unsurprisingly, this type of movement has spread more among the more educated middle classes in the tertiary sector.

But there are notable exceptions like in South Africa against apartheid or in India against British colonialism. And boycotts are more and more frequent in the so-called “Southern” countries. In Morocco, for example, the 2018 mobilizations « against the high cost of living » targeting Sidi Ali mineral water, Centrale Danone milk or Afriquia gas stations were particularly followed.

Let’s go back to the calls for a boycott of the next soccer world cup. If no delegation renounces sending its national team, it will be important not to conclude that the protest movement has failed.

The forms of boycott will be multiple (refusing to take an interest in it, giving up going there, not watching matches, preventing oneself from buying goodies such as national team shirts, etc.), certain criticisms of the principle of calls for a boycott will make their way. They will probably gain legitimacy gradually, over a longer time frame, this boycott will be only one step.

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