Boycotts Over Behavior Change: Reframing 'Individual Action' for Greatest Possible Effect

We should be using our daily choices about food, energy, transport, and consumption as levers to push wider societal change.

Man's hand holding a cardboard sign that says SAVE THE PLANET
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When I wrote about the futility of pitting individual action against systemic or political change, I noted it has become common to compare apartheid-era boycotts against South Africa to current efforts to avoid fossil fuels. There are indeed some valid points of comparison: withholding our support as "consumers" has a long history as a valuable tool of peaceful protest. There are also, however, some distinctions we need to make, as I noted in the above-referenced article: 

On the one hand, it is a powerful example of how we can harness daily actions for specific systemic goals. On the other hand, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that shoppers were asked not to change every single thing about how they live—and instead to make specific, actionable tweaks at specific points of pressure that would hit the bad guys where it hurt. (It’s easier to ask someone to choose a different orange than it is to rethink some of the fundamentals of where and how they live.) 

So what can we learn from boycotts of the past? The FourOneOne—a publication of—has an interesting article that lists the four components of setting up a successful boycott. These include: 

  1. Establish Credibility: Meaning you need to build a reputation, a profile and a presence, and a sense of authority to speak on a particular issue. 
  2. Communicate Succinctly: Meaning you need to define exactly what your demands are, and you need to develop succinct, consistent, and authentic messaging that you stick with across multiple platforms and over time. 
  3. Keep People Engaged: Meaning you have to find new and novel ways to get your message across and keep people interacting with your campaign. And you also have to be prepared to dig in for the long term. (Boycotts tend to work over years, not a few months.) 
  4. Focus on Impact Outside of Revenue: Research has demonstrated that the impact of boycotts is less about putting a direct financial hurt on a particular entity, but rather on less tangible aspects like reputational harm and/or galvanizing a particular community toward wider goals. 

This is a fascinating list. As someone who is currently re-reading Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter’s "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle"—and whose own book also looks at the connections between individual behaviors and systemic change—I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. And the conclusion I come to is that yes, we can and probably should be using our daily choices about food, energy, transport, and consumption as levers to push wider societal change. But we should also be very careful in how we frame and communicate the importance of those levers. Our goal should be to bring the largest possible contingent along for the ride and to make sure that we get the biggest possible bang for our metaphorical (and literal) buck. 

The flight shame movement and the academia-focused Flying Less campaign are one example of a targeted and specific boycott. Divestment and ethical investing campaigns are another. So too are recent efforts to push advertising and PR agencies to break up with fossil fuels. What each of these efforts has in common is that they don’t necessarily focus on the footprint of each individual supporter as their main unit of measurement for success. Instead, they apply a theory of change that views individuals as actors within the system, and they look for specific points of activation that might have broader, ripple effects. 

None of this is to say that individual carbon footprints are irrelevant. Measuring the impact of individuals helps us identify where change most need to happen. And those of us who go all-in on reducing our own footprints are helping to model what a saner and more sustainable system might look like—and what interventions might be needed to get us there. But as Alter argued in his kind review of my own book on climate hypocrisy, any efforts to promote individual changes must be cognizant of where every person is starting from, and what obstacles might stand in their way: 

“This is the essence of the issue. It is easy for some, like me, to give up driving and just use my e-bike. I live close to downtown, I work from home, and when I am teaching, I can use bike lanes, albeit generally crappy ones, all the way from my house to the university. Grover couldn't go the same distance without taking his life into his hands. Different conditions lead to different responses.”

For those of us who find it hard to pursue a truly 1.5 degree lifestyle, applying a lens of boycotts rather than behavior change may be a useful way to prioritize our actions and amplify their impact.