Boycotting Russian products may seem fair, but can individual consumers really make a difference?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent call for a Russian oil boycott and other import and export bans was aimed at world leaders, but social media consumers are also advocating some form of personal economic sanctions.
Some New Zealand shoppers have compiled lists of alcohol brands to avoid while others have identified Ukrainian brands to support.
But alongside these boycott lists are repeated dismissals by cynics who say local boycotts will have little impact on the European conflict. So, who is right ?
Boycotts are born out of the need to do something
Boycotts aim to redress a power imbalance and give voice to individuals through collective action.
The boycott of Russian products gives shoppers a small sense of efficacy against a larger political issue. By choosing to reject Russian products, buyers hope to create enough economic hardship to convince Vladimir Putin’s government to back off on its invasion of Ukraine.
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This is not the first time that consumers have tried to achieve political change through purchasing decisions. SodaStream has been the target of an international boycott because of the company’s ties to Israel and its factory in the West Bank.
Activists have called on tourists to take part in the “moral calculation” before traveling to Bali over Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua.
In the aftermath of September 11, American politicians called for a boycott of French products to punish the country for its opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
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The gap between intention and action
While shoppers might publicly pledge to boycott Russian products, the reality is that there are competing factors that drive purchasing decisions. The gap between intention and action can become a chasm.
The high cost of living in New Zealand means shoppers are generally driven by price and convenience. A New Zealand shopper might have the best intentions of boycotting Russian flour, vodka or oil, but their commitment might be questioned if these products are the cheapest options.
For a boycott to be effective, consumers must have the means to make the sacrifice, which may involve changing a habit, buying something more expensive or a little less convenient.
The second obstacle to an effective boycott is skepticism: Buyers might have the means to boycott Russia, but do they believe it will have an effect? Will Russia continue to enter Ukraine regardless of the buying decisions of a New Zealand consumer group?
Boycotts are most effective when buyers believe their sacrifice will make a difference.
Finally, consumers must also be able to identify products that come from Russia. While social media listings are helpful, products that look Russian but aren’t, like Swedish brand Absolut Vodka, have the potential to get caught up in boycotts of Russian products.
The rise of buycotts
Consumers often find buycotts easier to engage in than traditional boycotts. A buycott occurs when a buyer deliberately purchases the products of a company or country to support its policy.
Buycotts are less of a sacrifice and allow consumers to see immediate results.
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Buying products that put money back into the Ukrainian economy or go to charities supporting Ukrainian refugees can create the feeling of doing something positive, with less sacrifice than a boycott.
Ultimately, the most effective boycotts are those that target specific companies and can create change in response to consumer demand. Nike learned that lesson in the 1990s when it was boycotted for its labor practices in developing countries.
Consumers had options and Nike lost market share to competitors, forcing the company to change the way it made its products. Closer to home, chocolate giant Cadbury has been forced to back down after using palm oil in its dairy milk chocolate.
When it comes to a nationwide boycott, however, government sanctions must be part of the equation. Consumers can pressure the government to apply sanctions so that products from the offending country do not make it through the supply chain. In this case, the consumer has more value as a voter than as a boycotting buyer.