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Do Boycotts Work?

17 Jun, 2021
It's difficult to ascertain whether calls to boycott goods from Israel can lead to change in policies. Reuters
It's difficult to ascertain whether calls to boycott goods from Israel can lead to change in policies. Reuters

Leena Sohaib Zaidi

In recent years, it has become common practice to encourage boycotts when brands or countries engage in behaviour that is unacceptable to the public. For example, last week, the Spanish retailer Zara came under fire because of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian comments made by its head designer, Vanessa Perilman. Social media users called for a boycott against the brand, demanding that action be taken. This incident occurred just one month after Israeli aggression against Palestine in May 2021.

Although calls for boycotting Zara were trending on Twitter, is there any way to gauge whether anyone actually did so? Even more so, how long would the boycott last? Social media moves at an incredibly fast pace. New conversations are generated every minute, meaning that unless something is truly ground-breaking, discussions shift constantly. Further, Brayden King, an Institute for Policy Research associate, states that because of human nature being so habitual, it is unlikely that people really boycott companies at a large and consistent scale.

Considering how common calls for boycotts have become, it's worth wondering whether boycotting even work.

This question has a complex answer as there are many layers to what a ‘boycott’ can mean. Historically, there have been a few major boycotts that have had a clear impact. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 led to the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing segregation on public buses. Similarly, the 1977 Nestle boycott due to false advertising led to the company agreeing to new advertising rules. When it comes to Palestine and Israel, however, a commonly referenced example of successful boycotting is the campaign against the South African apartheid state in the 1980s.

The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is modelled after the boycotts against the South African state in the 1980s. The South African boycotts remind how complex the issue of boycotts get. Alongside the familiar economic boycotts (in which brands and imports are boycotted), there were also sports boycotts, cultural boycotts, and academic boycotts by major powers of the world like the US and the UK. Ordinary people organised boycotts against South African sports teams, companies that traded with South Africa, and against South African products. There were multiple forms of resistance and opposition against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In The South African Boycott Experience, Professors Shireen Hassim, Jonathan Hyslop, and Salim Valley write that while boycotts and economic sanctions weakened the status quo in South Africa, their effect shouldn’t be exaggerated. They credit the mass revolts in South Africa as the main contributor leading to the victory against apartheid and eventual democratisation.

Dr. Aadil Nakhoda, an economics professor at the Institute of Business Administration explained that boycotts tend not to work when the importing country is too small and has an insignificant demand for the goods that are exported by the country facing the boycott. He contextualises this in Pakistan, saying, “The trade between Pakistan and Israel is already negligible. Boycott of Israeli products will only be symbolic as Israeli products are unlikely to be available in the market.” A version of this was seen with the South African boycotts as well. While the UK television industry boycotted South Africa, British TV had never been popular enough in South Africa to have an impact.

The BDS movement is aware of the issues that can come with boycotts.

“Boycotts mainly cause disruption to supply chains and can be costly for local businesses as they may have to source their inputs from alternative suppliers,” said Dr. Nakhoda. Considering the global nature of the economy, BDS has established an accessible and simple list of companies and products to boycott. The hope is that because of the limited nature of the list, the boycott will be successful.

This list includes Israeli fruits and vegetables, AXA, Hewlett Packard (HP), Puma, SodaStream, Ahava, Sabra, and Pillsbury. All of the mentioned companies and products are harmful to Palestinians and have been chosen to have the maximum impact on Israeli stability. The Israeli fruits and vegetables are marketed as “Produce of Israel” but are actually produced on stolen Palestinian land, AXA is a French insurance company that invests in Israeli banks that fund the stealing of Palestinian land, HP helps in running the biometric systems used to restrict Palestinian mobility, and so on.

However, as was seen in the South African boycotts as well as Dr. Nakhoda’s statements, boycotts are rarely successful on their own. That is why the movement also encourages divestment and sanctions. Divestments and sanctions were both essential parts of the movements against South Africa and it was the comprehensive and consistent nature of the movement that made it so successful. Further, because of the fleeting nature of conversations on social media, it is difficult to know whether these boycotts will be impactful. Therefore, while boycotts can be helpful in reaching short-term goals, they are not always successful achieving long-term goals when employed on their own.

The writer is a staff intern and student at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.