Grannyvibe had a very interesting post on people who boycott Wal-Mart. I have enormous respect for this writer, and if she says that she understands the issues, I am sure she does. I do not intend to say anything at all about Wal-Mart here. But I think there are two things going on in her story.

The first is about voting with your pocketbook. At its simplest, this means that you do not spend money with companies whose business practices are abhorrent to you, and you let them know that.

So many evils in the world are done not from fiendish malevolence, but merely because they are profitable. If we can threaten that profitability, we can encourage change. Often, this is more effective than political activism.

Take the example of Taco Bell. They had human rights issues with the people who picked their tomatoes. The cost of fixing the problem worked out to about a 15 cent rise in the price of a taco. People all over the country sent them a simple message: “I am one of your customers. I am willing to spend 15 cents more on a taco in order to improve conditions for the people who pick your tomatoes. I won’t shop with you again till changes are made.” Yum Foods, the enormous international corporation that owns Taco Bell, took care of the problem — not, I would guess, because they had a change of heart, but because that great big focus group told them that their customers cared whether their workers were treated fairly. Yum now has a human rights policy, and is known for trying to clean up their act, instead of for their bad behavior. Those of us who refused to support them, now make a point of supporting them, and encourage further progress. That’s simple good business on their part, and a good example of economic suasion.

Please notice that the pressure was not put on tomato growers. The folks who picked the tomatoes were at the mercy of the growers, but the growers were at the mercy of the enormous buyers. Yum has the money and power to make a difference in the industry. This is why, if we are for example concerned about the chocolate industry, we should boycott — and communicate with — Nestle, not just boycott all African chocolate and threaten the economy of Cote d’Ivoire. Economic pressure should go toward those who can actually afford to make changes.

Being a socially responsible consumer is a matter of conscience, for me. To take a historical example, I believe that the people who owned slaves in the American South were wrong. But I also believe that those who knowingly benefited from slavery — either through direct profit or through the lower prices resulting from slavery — were wrong. Even when they spoke out against slavery and looked down on the slaveholders, yet continued to profit from the horrible institution.

In the real world, things aren’t always simple. Slavery wasn’t. In the town where I live, there was a woman in the 1860s who inherited three slaves. At that time, it was illegal to be a free black person in this state. She couldn’t simply free her new slaves, because they couldn’t live here as free people, but had nowhere to go outside the state. She could not afford to stake them to a new home in another state. Even though she was personally opposed to slavery (I’ve read her diary), this woman kept her slaves. As Granny points out, sometimes the best choice is not an option.

But we often have choices, and when we do, it is reasonable and right to let our consciences be our guides. It is reasonable, if we are opposed to sweatshops, to child labor, to unfair and deceptive labor practices — or whatever else we care about — to make economic choices that reflect that.

If we feel sad about child labor and child slavery, yet support Nestle, one of the companies that is culpable in this, then we should not bother feeling sad. If we did not buy things produced by children sold to cacao growers, there would be no children sold to cacao growers. If we can convince Nestle that we won’t buy things produced with child labor, then Nestle will quit buying things produced with child labor, and there will be no more child labor in the chocolate industry — because Nestle is big and powerful enough to cause that change. Already, economic pressure has persuaded most European chocolate producers not only to stand up against child labor, but to help the growers in Cote d’Ivoire come up with ways to sustain themselves without resorting to these practices.

The Blue Pages mentioned above gives lots of information about the policies, practices, and political action of major companies. It tells what charities they give to, what lawsuits have been brought against them, and when they’ve gotten in trouble for — or been rewarded for — their environmental and health behaviors. This page provides online links with similar information.  If you choose to follow up on these sources, you will have the knowledge you need to put your money where your beliefs are. And I for one hope you will do so, even if you don’t happen to share my beliefs.

Now I think there is something else going on in Granny’s story. And that is that the people Granny writes about — the ones who boycott Wal-Mart — were denigrating the people and the culture of the place they were visiting.

I know about this. I think I’ve written about this before. I live in one of those places people visit with a very de haut en bas attitude. (The home of Wal-Mart, coincidentally.) The people who live here are not actually a sideshow put out for maximum quaintness value for visiting tourists, but we occasionally have — among the many, many nice visitors who enrich our lives — people who seem to think so. I don’t want to hear some tourist slighting my home and the people who live here. I especially don’t want some tourist hearing my accent, recognizing that I am not from here, and thinking that I will therefore join them in slighting my home and the people who live here. Frankly, I don’t want to hear anybody slighting anybody.

There is a difference between choosing not to shop with a company because they do things you consider wrong, and choosing not to shop with a company because you think they’re tacky. And there is an enormous difference between standing on your principles (which I know Granny does) and being disrespectful and rude.

Those of us who make choices about shopping on the basis of principle must, if we are to be effective in what we are trying to do, be sure not to be obnoxious. As a fine woman of my acquaintance once said, “If you think that you are being persecuted for your religion, ask yourself ‘Am I being obnoxious?'” (I was not, by the way, the one who felt persecuted.)

Equally, if you think people are indifferent to your message about social change, ask yourself: “Am I being obnoxious?” You don’t move people to consider fair trade by being condescending about your hostess’s coffee. You don’t persuade people to care about worker’s rights by looking down on workers (even if you are a worker). And you can’t advance an agenda of fairness by being snippy about someone’s way of life.