Friday, August 21, 2009

More on the Mackey/Whole Foods boycott

I'll start by noting that in contrast to my usual blogging subjects here, I actually have a fair amount of direct personal experience with boycott campaigns. I played a somewhat central role in the successful boycotts that got Columbia Sportswear and Pepsi out of Burma,* was heavily involved in the mostly-unsuccessful boycott of Unocal for its travesties in Burma, and I studied the successful tuna-dolphin boycotts before starting my own activism.

Some thoughts:

1. If Mackey owned Whole Foods instead of working for it, I'd have no problem with a boycott and might have to join it myself.

2. Part of a successful boycott strategy is a coherent goal - so what's the goal here, when the boycott target, Whole Foods, has done nothing wrong? Get it to fire Mackey for his political opinions expressed on his own time? Is that ethical?

3. The ever-nuanced Jonathan Zasloff says what he wants from Mackey is intelligent disagreement, and not to shut him up. Fine, but the demand isn't being made of Mackey, it's being made of Whole Foods.

4. Matt Yglesias says shutting down CEOs from prominence in the public media isn't that bad/unethical anyway as they get undeserved attention to spout off on issues unrelated to their business. So do other people though, like Hollywood liberals. That's life. Anyway, it's Whole Foods that's being punished for something Whole Foods didn't do.

5. Somewhere in the Yglesias comment thread, someone says this isn't about ethics, it's about political maneuvering, and objectors like myself should get off our high horses. Interesting point, but Your "Ends Justifies the Means" Mileage May Vary (maybe I can invent a new Internet acronym, YEJMMMV).

6. Boycotts need both favorable sentiment and an organizer. A "Boycott Whole Foods" group has sprung up, but what they want is unclear. They call for a boycott, but don't say what they want Whole Foods to do. I think a successful boycott requires that the target company know exactly what it needs to do in order to make the problem go away.

7. Boycotts succeed not by turning customers away, but by affecting brand image and taking the time of important people. That's the sole advantage I see here for a boycott, in that Whole Foods relies heavily on its image.

8. The boycott may not be about Whole Foods or Mackey at all, but rather about health reform. That might make it more logical, but I'm not sure if it makes it the right thing to do.

9. Given his past, Mackey seems dumb enough to pull stunts like this again in the future. I remember hearing somewhere that company board members never want to see the company name in the newspaper, unless it's to report on record profits. Either he's really good at what his actual work entails, or the guy will eventually have to go.

*I should qualify these as "tactically" successful. We got the companies to withdraw, but have obviously failed on the broader strategic goal of forcing Burma's dictators to change.

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