Boycotts and Strikes: A Misguided American Mess

As uninformed and untargeted boycotts and strikes continue to arise across the nation to advocate for ceasefires or to pressure Israel, it's important to take a step back and realize that they’re not accomplishing the intended goal.

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By Grace Louie

Blood drips down the walls of a coffee machine; it accumulates in a large pool at the bottom. In the middle of this ghastly scene: a cup, filled with blood, with a Starbucks logo on the front.

This is the description of an Instagram post that got over 10,000 likes advocating for boycotting Starbucks. This post is only a small portion of the larger movement of calling for boycotts and strikes across the nation against companies allegedly associated with supporting Israel. Starbucks is currently at the forefront, making headlines in the media and being mentioned by name in social media infographics on how to support Palestine. It is undeniably the most well-known boycott at the moment, but should it be? And is it even working? My answer to both of those questions: no.

I’ll start with the latter question. Some people would agree that the boycott is working, citing that Starbucks has lost 11 billion dollars in market value amid boycotts. This doesn't mean that sales are decreasing—it just means that sales aren’t growing as much as investors predicted. However, the mismatched timing between the foot traffic decline and the boycotts show that boycotts have had a minuscule impact on Starbucks’s market value. There are two alternate reasons for this value plummeting. The first comes from a consumer news readership report Memo provided to Vox, which showed that consumer awareness of certain Starbucks specials has decreased. However, people aren’t refusing to buy Starbucks specials, they are just uninformed about them. The second and more prominent reason comes from Starbucks’s waning influence in China, which is its largest market outside of the U.S. A coffee company called Luckin took Starbucks’s place as the biggest coffee chain in China around the same time that Starbucks’s stock value began to decrease, attributable to Luckin’s relatively cheap prices and aggressive expansion. The impact of Starbucks boycotts is much smaller than people think. 

So why isn’t the boycott working? If Starbucks is one of the most well-known boycott targets for the Free Palestine movement, boycotts should have a large impact. The boycott lacks legitimacy. One of the largest pro-Palestine movements, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), along with its leading coalition, the BDS National Committee (BNC) hasn’t included Starbucks in its list of companies to boycott. Though the BNC hasn’t released an official statement as to why it hasn’t, the most likely reason has to do with the original reason for the boycott. Despite the graphic bloody imagery associated with Starbucks on social media, the origins of this boycott have nothing to do with this unproven idea that Starbucks monetarily supports Israel. Rather, it all started because of the company’s lawsuit against Starbucks workers for trademark infringement: workers used the Starbucks Workers United Twitter account to express their support for Palestine. The union then implied that Starbucks “supports terrorism and violence” in their countersuit, which left many with an overblown negative perspective of Starbucks. Suing the union wasn’t Starbucks supporting terrorism and violence; the Starbucks corporation sued because the account that made the statement had their name and logo in it, which made many think that this was an official corporate stance. The situation would’ve been the same if the account tweeted “We stand with Israel.” Starbucks is doing what almost every large company does in these situations: staying “neutral.” 

Since the company is perceived by many as an overpriced coffee luxury paired with the fact that it has a history riddled with issues involving its union, its appeal as a boycott target is understandable. However, boycotts with the goal of furthering the Palestinian cause should place pressure on Israel economically or politically, and the Starbucks boycott does not do that. Putting Starbucks at the center of this movement is not a wise choice at all. 

This Starbucks debacle is just one example of how social media posts and public opinion can blow things out of proportion, leading to poor and ineffective choices when it comes to boycotting. Other instances of this include people shouting extensive lists of boycott targets in some protests or writing them on activist websites. Proof of Israeli support is rarely provided for these lists.

The BNC is aware of these trends, which is why they make it a point to emphasize the need for targeted boycotts. They write: “While we call for divestment from all companies implicated in Israel's human rights violations, we focus our boycott campaigns on a select few strategic targets.” The BDS movement focuses on boycotts that are “easy to explain, have wide appeal, and the potential for success.” On their website, they provide reasons for boycotting each company, including direct support for Israel’s military, unethical natural resource extraction on Palestinian land, and aiding creation of illegal Israeli settlements. These companies do damage and have a substantially larger impact on this issue than companies like Starbucks do.  

This targeted approach towards boycotting has had a substantial impact in the past. In America, the Montgomery Bus Boycott during the Civil Rights Movement targeted the specific issue of segregated buses, African Americans, who made up a large percentage of bus riders at that time, collapsed bus company revenues, gained national recognition, and used its attention to successfully bring a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court against segregated public buses. The Civil Rights Movement used “targeted civil disobedience”, which eventually led to larger systemic change. 

A targeted boycott would work for the Palestinian cause and somewhat already has. The BDS movement, which has pushed for the idea of targeted boycotting since its inception, has made a global impact. The movement has used boycotts to help push large firms outside of the West Bank such as SodaStream and Ahava since settlement businesses prove to violate Palestinian rights. The movement’s  porting boycotts have also pressured sports organizations like FIFA to take decisive stances on the issue. The BDS boycott movement has become so prominent that it has caused anti-boycott laws to arise in Europe and the US, claiming that they are fueling antisemitism. These laws are absolutely ridiculous: boycotts are under the umbrella of protected free speech. Moreover, these boycotts are targeting Israel’s illegal settlements and its excessive military force, not Jews. 

Targeted boycotts aren’t limited to the civil rights and BDS movements alone. In fact, almost all of the most renowned and influential boycotts in history are targeted ones. This isn’t just a coincidence. If there isn’t a defined and legitimate company or list of companies to boycott, the most popular targets may end up not being the most important ones to boycott, as with the case of Starbucks, and the boycott efforts become diluted. 

As a result of these untargeted boycotts, some have proposed a global strike lasting from one day to a week. However, focusing people’s efforts into a global strike is, like the Starbucks boycott, an indisputable mistake. These global strikes do not have a wide appeal or potential for success. It is unreasonable to expect people to not work or spend money to express solidarity with Palestine. In a CNN article discussing a global strike in the US, figures that provided the number of people or businesses that would participate were very small. The only large figure is the number of likes the post advocating for the global strike in the U.S. got and that demonstrates how effective this strike would be. People only want to advocate for these efforts from the sidelines but not actually participate in them because of how much sacrifice it would take. This type of performative activism proves to be a major failure when it comes to actual action and impact. 

Moreover, if most of the businesses who decisively stand with Palestine decide to shut down for a week, small businesses will disproportionately be hurt while large consumer corporations would not engage in this strike due to the economic benefits and since they do not decisively stand with Palestine. Meanwhile, the strike wouldn't do enough damage to even get into many lawmakers’ ears. 

These untargeted and ineffective boycotts and strikes demonstrate how we sometimes value principle over practicality. If us and those around us are fighting for an important cause, it may be difficult to see that our means of furthering that cause are unhelpful and damaging. We need to be vigilant, fact-check information when it comes to boycotting, assess the effectiveness of our actions, look for residual harms, and evaluate whether what we are fighting for is being pushed forward or left behind. By doing that, we can achieve the true potential of our tried and true tools for social change.