Blogs & Comment

Boycotting oilsands hypocrisy

When multinationals participate in boycotts, is it 'people power' or bullying?

As you’ve probably all heard by now (and as the Canadian Press reported last week) fruit company Chiquita has joined a boycott of fuel originating in Alberta’s oilsands. The folks flying the “ethical oil” banner have responded by suggesting Canadians should boycott Chiquita.

This story of boycott and counter-boycott actually started last year when a group led by Forest Ethics and Corporate Ethics International called for a boycott of Alberta tourism.

Now, this is not just a matter of tit-for-tat; there’s more moral significance to it than that. To begin, you don’t have to be a big fan of the oilsands to acknowledge that it is with some justice that the “ethical oil” advocates suggest that what the boycott means, in practice, is that Chiquita is going to be getting its oil from sources at least as ethically-fraught as the oilsands. Defenders of the oilsands have also pointed out that Chiquita’s own history is not without its ethical blemishes. See, for instance, the fine Chiquita paid for its involvement with Colombian paramilitary groups.

OK, so nobody’s perfect. But should we really limit stone-throwing to those without sin? Probably not. Being a hypocrite is different from being wrong. And so if—if—Chiquita is right about oilsands oil being not just bad, but the worst, then there’s nothing wrong with them expressing that view, that company’s own ethical shortcomings notwithstanding.

No, the real problem with this boycott is that, like most boycotts, it is such a disastrously blunt instrument. Although typically portrayed as sending a message, boycotts actually send their message through brute force: they are—if and when they work—a form of bullying. Boycotts are populist, rather than democratic. And maybe that’s OK. Power to the people, and so on. But I wonder how ready the average ‘green consumer’ is to wave the people-power banner, when the ‘people’ exercising the power are really corporate persons.