A year after its release and long after anyone actually bought the book, there’s still a little bit of Out of Sight buzz here and there. Laura Clawson from Daily Kos asked me to do a Q&A about the book. Here’s one of the questions:
LC: You make the case against the boycott impulse of saying “well, I personally just won’t shop there.” What’s wrong with that and how do we get past it to take action that will put real pressure on companies to change?
LOOMIS: The problem with individuals choosing to boycott companies for a given behavior like using sweatshops is that it doesn’t really accomplish anything for the workers involved. Kalpona Akter, a leader of the Bangladeshi apparel workers movement, has explicitly asked westerners not to boycott the factories. These workers need jobs! If we decide to go buy clothing at the thrift store, we might make ourselves feel good and morally righteous for not supporting an exploitative system, but the reality is that we are doing nothing to change corporate behavior. What we have to do is organize to demand the companies making this clothing be held accountable for their actions. That’s what workers want.
There is an exception to my position on the boycott and that’s when the affected workers ask for one. The United Farm Workers most famously used the boycott during the grape strikes of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, being an ethical consumer means learning about what workers need and want from you and trying to accomplish those aims to help them, not to make yourself feel good.
Real pressure on the companies can come through movements like the United Students Against Sweatshops, who organized on college campuses in the 1990s to force colleges and universities to contract for their school-sanctioned clothing under ethical guidelines. USAS is still around today. Reinvigorating these sorts of movements that use our power in the organizations to which we belong—schools, churches, social clubs—to place pressure on apparel companies or other industries that use child labor or forced labor or sweatshop labor is how we start to make that change. There are already groups like the Harry Potter Alliance doing this sort of work, in this case on Harry Potter-themed products like chocolates that are produced without child labor.
There will also be talks in the fall at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania and Eastern Washington University, if anyone is around those areas. And I can give a talk at your college and/or university and /or social group for a shockingly low price!