Magazine article The New Yorker

Shop till They Drop

Magazine article The New Yorker

Shop till They Drop

Article excerpt

Shop Till They Drop

We're always hearing about "firestorms of protest," but they seldom involve actual fire. In November, though, people who owned New Balance sneakers began setting them alight, posting videos of flaming footware to social media, and calling for a boycott of the company. Like so much else these days, it's because of Trump. The night that he was elected, a New Balance spokesman told the Wall Street Journal, "With President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction." The spokesman was actually making a fairly limited point about trade policy. Trump has promised to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal secured by President Obama that would reduce trade barriers between many Pacific Rim countries. That suits New Balance, which still manufactures some of its shoes in the U.S., but good luck trying to communicate such subtleties in the current climate. New Balance suddenly found that its support for American workers--P.R. gold, you would have thought--had led it into contentious territory.

New Balance hasn't been the only corporate victim of a hyperpolarizing election season. After Pepsi's C.E.O., Indra Nooyi, said that company employees were "crying" after Trump's victory, conservatives called for a boycott. (The cause was aided by a viral fake-news story claiming that Nooyi had told Trump supporters to "take their business elsewhere.") A couple of weeks later, Kellogg's became the target of a conservative boycott, for yanking its advertising from Breitbart News.

There's a long history of corporate boycotts: the labor movement used them during strikes at the turn of the twentieth century, and they've been common since the nineteen-sixties. But, until now, boycotts have usually been staged in response to specific corporate practices. The United Farm Workers, in the mid-sixties, organized the famous grape boycott in order to get farmers to stop relying on underpaid, non-union workers. Greenpeace organized a boycott of Shell, in 1995, to stop the company from dumping an old oil platform at sea. And, in the nineties, Nike faced a boycott over its reliance on sweatshop labor.

By contrast, the Trump boycotts, from both the left and the right, have been driven by issues extraneous to the targets' core business practices. There are antecedents: a few years ago, L.G.B.T. activists went after Chick-fil-A after its president voiced his opposition to gay marriage. But there's something new about the speed and ferocity with which people now respond to corporate statements or signals. You can see it as the next logical step in the evolution of what's sometimes called political consumerism. …

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