As I have previously written, my province of Ontario recently had an election. A little over half of Ontario’s eligible voters came out and cast their ballots. No matter what you thought of the results, we are fortunate to live in a democracy where we can let our voices be heard. But the ballot is not the only way we can vote. We can also do so with our wallets.
As most of us know, corporations often act in unconscionable ways. While they may sometimes make efforts to appear benevolent through sponsorships and marketing campaigns, it has become more and more clear that corporations do not exist to help their customers or their employees, but only their shareholders. Those fuddy-duddies are only made happy when their shares and dividends increase in value, and corporations have shown themselves going to horrific lengths in order to maximize their profits. While the enormity and power of these monoliths can make the average person feel helpless to instigate change, I believe the least we can do is deny them our business when they misbehave.
Over a long period of time I have amassed a list of six corporations whose products I won’t buy for various reasons. All these corporations are still with us and thriving, but I can at least sleep at night comfortable in the knowledge that I’m not helping them (at least not anymore).
Twenty years ago I was a big fan of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. I was amazed at Roger & Me’s ability to be funny while illustrating how a single corporation’s callousness can rip apart an entire city. Since then, I have come to question some of Moore’s filmmaking techniques, while acknowledging that they don’t really interfere with the validity of his theses.
In 1997, he released his long-awaited feature-length follow-up to Roger & Me entitled The Big One, in which a bunch of corporations were taken to task, notably the running shoe giant Nike. We’re told they pay next to nothing for the materials in their shoes, and they pay the third-world child labourers next to nothing to make them, yet they charge the consumer between $100 and $200 to wear them. I remember Moore making the point that they could make them in the U.S.A., sell them at the same price and still turn a small profit. I decided, as the credits rolled, that I wasn’t interested in being Nike’s customer.
This wasn’t a difficult boycott for me. I only buy athletic clothing every once in a while. While a lot of Nike gear looks cool, a lot of what their competitors are selling looks just as good.
Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t done an equal examination of Adidas, New Balance, Under Armour or Saucony. They could all be running their business in the exact same way. So let me promise right here, right now, that the next time I am in the market for new athletic gear, I will find a company that conducts their business more ethically.
I’ve always hated this store. I hate the fluorescent-lit generic garishness of their store layout. I hate their entire way of doing business.
When capitalism was first developing as the dominant economic practice of Western Civilization during the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the key planks that made it work so well was competition, and the only way competition is valid is if it’s fair.
There is nothing fair about WalMart. They are the most extreme example of a big box retailer maximizing profit by minimizing their labour and supply costs. The 2005 documentary WalMart: The High Cost of Low Price detailed how people who worked full-time at WalMart were encouraged to apply for government assistance so they could pay their rent and eat food. By keeping their bottom line low, WalMart is able to charge less for goods than any other retailer, to the point where many small towns in the United States have long had WalMart as the only game in town. With that being the case, WalMart uses their leverage to name their price to their suppliers. Those people now have a limit on how much they can pay their workers. This isn’t how capitalism is supposed to work, folks.
A lot of people love WalMart because they can buy stuff at low prices, but I think WalMart is just making all of us poor. Because of WalMart, a lot more people have less money to spend, which keeps less money circulating to fewer people. What’s more insidious is that the 14th, 15th and 16th richest people in the world are all WalMart heirs. Alice, Rob and Jim Walton each split $138.6 billion between them, which proves WalMart have the means of treating their workers and suppliers more humanely, yet they choose not to.
Because I find WalMart so unpleasant, I enjoy finding other places to shop. For clothing I like smaller shops, but bigger chains like Moore’s or Mark’s Work Warehouse tend to have things I like. For other items I can usually find what I need in grocery and hardware stores, or Canadian Tire.
This one is a much tougher business for me to boycott. Their ice creams, chocolates and iced teas are all delicious, but I wouldn’t deprive myself if I didn’t think it was necessary.
My entire opposition to Nestlé has to do with their practice of pumping hundreds of millions of litres of groundwater every year from aquifers in Ontario and British Columbia. They pay less than one-twentieth of a cent per litre of water, then resell it for up to $2 a bottle, all while more than a hundred First Nations reserves are living under drinking water advisories, and climate change has large swaths of North America enduring long droughts. It’s despicable business, and the Canadian government should have put a stop to it long ago.
Before I started boycotting Nestlé, I had long since stopped drinking bottled water. Not only do I find the bottles incredibly wasteful, I am paranoid about the plastic breaking down into the water. But my paranoia is a whole other topic.
The toughest part of the Nestlé boycott is the sheer number of their sub-brands. For instance, I had no idea they owned Perrier and San Pellegrino. A lot of you probably don’t know that they own Purina, Gerber and Stouffer’s. Why would you? When you think of Nestlé, you think chocolate, but they are much, much bigger.
This hasn’t been a long boycott so far, and it’s not too difficult for me since I don’t drink coffee, but Tim Hortons is ubiquitous throughout Canada, and they sell tasty breakfast sandwiches, muffins, donuts and tea.
In November, the now out-going Ontario government passed a bill that raised the province’s minimum wage to $14 an hour at the beginning of this year, and would see it go up to $15 in 2019. When the first raise came into effect, the Tim Hortons franchise in Cobourg, Ontario, which is run by Horton’s own descendent, stripped its workers of paid breaks and cut their benefits, citing the raise in minimum wage. Another Tim Hortons in Dundas, Ontario, has pulled paid breaks as well.
Tim Hortons headquarters has said the decisions are those of the individual franchisees, and, therefore, there is not much that can be done. However, I think this is a case that is begging for some leadership from head office, and obviously none is forthcoming. So that’s why I’m not just boycotting the individual franchises, but the chain as a whole.
On May 4, 2018, a Loblaws Companies shareholders meeting was held, and they were faced with a proposal to “determine the feasibility of paying its employees a living wage – one that varies by location and is calculated by its cost of living.” The proposal was submitted by Vancity Investment Management Ltd., and a spokesperson for Vancity addressed the shareholders saying, “Socially responsible companies contribute to the economic well-being of communities by providing direct and indirect employment preferably at rates that reflect the true cost of living. We believe the living wage reflects those costs.”
It was already recommended to shareholders in the annual proxy circular put out by Loblaw’s Board of Directors that they vote against the proposal. Loblaws CEO Galen Weston (who I’ve met and, honestly, seemed nice), reminded shareholders present at the meeting of that recommendation. Let me stress that the proposal wasn’t about implementing anything, but simply conducting an analysis of how the livable-wage practice would work. Nevertheless, the proposal was voted down.
This taught me two things. One: Shareholders don’t want to share the wealth; and two: Trickle-down economics don’t exist.
My boycott of Loblaws is very young. There are some small independent butcher, seafood and produce shops in my neighbourhood in which I enjoy shopping, but I also used to stop in Shoppers Drug Mart quite frequently, and Loblaws owns them, so I have to break that habit. There are other drug store chains like Rexall, Pharmasave and Main Drug Mart, so this should be a boycott I can sustain.
First of all, I find shopping online very bad for the economy. Bricks-and-mortar businesses provide work and employment for a great many people, while an online business can be one guy in his bedroom. I have seen too many things I love fade away because of technological advances, like record and video stores. The entertainment industry is working to adjust itself, but a lot of people are forced to eke out a living with very little in the meantime.
The biggest figure in e-commerce, without a doubt, is the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. He has a net worth of $112 billion, making him the first person to top $100 billion in the Forbes list of billionaires. He doesn’t have to employ as many people as a physical retail chain would, but there are numerous heads of government, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who are giving him sales pitches as to why their locales are the best place for a brand new Amazon headquarters. Meanwhile low-paying jobs in Amazon warehouses have been described as “grueling and high-stress,” and only a few people have been able to survive the year required to collect benefits. Other jobs offered by Amazon are seasonal or temporary, with those workers unsure of their schedule or how many hours a week they’ll get. It’s kind of an offensive workplace situation when the CEO can match the gross domestic product of many countries, so I no qualms about keeping my money away from Amazon.
I could be doing a better job with my boycotts. I could be looking to find companies whose business practices I approve, as opposed to isolating businesses of whom I disapprove. That would be a more positive approach. I could contact the businesses I’m boycotting, because they’re most likely unaware they lost a customer. I could become more politically active about livable-wage proposals, groundwater conservation and other causes.
For now, these boycotts are a small yet positive start.