In 1997, the Southern Baptist Church announced a boycott of Disney to protest the company’s challenges to traditional family values. It could be viewed as symbolic, a failure or both1. Many Christians did not stop watching those adorable animated tales, at least not until decades later when Carrie Fisher became Marry Poppins, Mark Hamill drank green milk, and Gina Carano was fired for a political post on social media. In 1955, after the arrest of Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon called for a one-day bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama. That one day boycott continued for 11 months2. It was one of the few boycotts that fueled a movement which lasted generations. But were those who participated really voting with their dollars? It wasn’t their choice in purchases that was impactful, but the cultural and legal shift brought about by their collective actions.
I have not shopped at a Wal-Mart since 2009. I stopped shopping at Amazon in 2016. Amazon and others are the new mega-mall of Internet stores, leading to the deaths of mom and pop e-businesses, in the same way Wal-Mart killed local businesses. I shopped at Whole Foods and Woot for a while after Amazon purchased them, but Woot shirts suck now and I rarely shop at any Amazon owned businesses. After Proctor & Gamble released their razor commercial about the dangers of toxic masculinity3, I stopped buying all Proctor & Gamble products. This took some work as they have a lot of different brands, and it’s easy to accidentally buy one of their product lines.
I have never subscribed to a streaming service. I had Netflix back when they mailed out DVDs. I ripped them, sent them back and canceled my subscription before the two-month free trial was up. I still watch a lot of media, via the magic of a seedbox, the details of which I won’t delve into here 🏴☠️. Avoiding official means of viewing content from streaming services means I literally had nothing to stop paying for, as several people cancelled subscriptions to Netflix, Disney+ and others, after various controversies.
Around 2017, I stopped using Uber. This was mostly due to the endless flow of articles on news sites, with allegations of cut-throat corporate culture, harassment and even intellectual property theft. Although it’s likely Lyft has engaged in some of the same practices to stay competitive, I still prefer either a local taxi or Lyft when I absolutely need access to a ride. However, I generally try to avoid all ride-sharing and taxi services, preferring my bicycle, public transportation or my car, in that order, subject to availability.
I currently have over 250GB of music, all of which I can sync to a microSD card I keep in my phone. It’s music I’ve collected over the years. Some of it was probably downloaded from Napster, others ripped from the wall of CDs at my college radio station. Often my friends would let me rip their CD wallets, while we played Quake at LAN parties. When I was old enough to start going to bars, I’d buy countless CDs from bands and rip them. When I left the country for a while, I mailed many of the originals to friends around the United States, so they could enjoy bands they’d likely never hear about or seek out on their own.
Whenever possible, I try to buy music from Bandcamp, which takes a more reasonable percentage of sales than competing services. I’ve never paid for a music streaming service. I hate how artists often need hundreds of thousands, if not millions of streams/plays, just to make minimum wage456. I’ve never used Google Music. My collection has obscure, amazing work, that likely doesn’t exist on any of the big sites. I buy or rip my music, never rent it.
I eat animals. For a very brief period, I was a vegetarian. I made the decision, partially for health and partially for sustainability reasons. There are limits as to what can be accomplished when it comes to sustainable food. The agricultural, meat and fishing industries are massive machines. For several years I lived a very low carb, keto-style diet, which greatly improved my health, but had questionable sustainability. I make no real attempts to source food ethically, and doubt those who do so (such as vegans), make any sizable impact on environmental sustainability.
I run uBlock Origin on my browser, and Ad Away on my mobile device, in an attempt to limit my exposure to advertisements. Ads often leads people to buy things they don’t need. I try to individually support independent content creators via direct funding, although that has become more difficult thanks to the new era of corporate censorship.
PayPal has grown increasingly hostile to groups they don’t agree with ideologically. They’ve cancelled accounts for many conservative organizations7. Almost every store I use that accepts PayPal, also accepts traditional credit cards. Even eBay (which owned PayPal at one time) is pushing their own payment processor (although I avoid selling on eBay as well, as their fees are now outrageous). I’ve mostly gone back to using my credit card directly and will likely delete my PayPal account entirely in the future.
I do purchase video games, as I do prefer some level of accountability when running third party closed source code. I prefer DRM free versions of game from the Humble Bundle store, if they’re available, over the locked in versions on Steam, Origin, Epic and other virtual game stores. For console gaming, I always buy physical discs, so I can lend them to friends, or sell them, after I’ve finished the title.
The Symbolic and the Literal
I understand all my purchasing decisions are symbolic. My individual choices will not lead to the fall of Wal-Mart, nor will they force Amazon to treat their workers better than their robots. My purchasing decisions will not increase the wages of struggling musicians or video game developers. I make no illusions as to the relevance of where I choose to spend my money.
I also understand my decisions are inconsistent; even hypocritical. Why do I support some creators and not others? Why should anyone view a small company or underdog as being more deserving of funding than a larger, well-established player? Some of my decisions I make on moral lines, but there are a considerable number of decisions that are arbitrary, or because I’m just cheap. There are some companies I disagree with, but shifting away would be impractical.
There are limits to how anyone can practically apply their personal morality to purchasing decisions, if one wishes to continue living in our modern world. We romanticize the wilderness writers like Edward Abbey as we purchase passes to national parks, or quote Henry David Thoreau when few of us would dare avoid paying taxes to protest a war. Where Richard M. Stallman refused to purchase AmTrak tickets over privacy concerns8, many people in the open source world feel that using Linux, and being concerned over open source licensing, is sufficient to grant a moral license to enable browser DRM and binge Netflix.
I sometimes mention I haven’t shopped from Amazon in years, when people go on about their purchases or promote the benefits of the company. I try not to be a vegan about it, but also realize my concerns about Amazon and big tech are unlikely persuade many from letting go of the convenience of ordering everything from that one mega-platform. Still, I show them it’s possible, and provide alternatives for those who are interested.
The Back of the Bus
Our individual purchasing decisions don’t amount to a hill of beans, compared to the massive advertising power of companies with marketable products and services. It takes a collective effort to stand against a conglomerate. Even then, it’s often about getting a message out than divesting in a particular company.
Following the nationwide race riots of 2020, every company in America, under the Orwellian threat of “Silence is Violence” (just as “War is Peace,” and “Freedom is Slavery9,”) spouted political rhetoric. It made it impossible to divest in political messages, without also being locked out from shopping nearly anywhere or buying anything.
I fully realize the power of my dollar is symbolic. The Southern Baptist church didn’t bring down Disney with their boycotts in the ’90s. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts ended after 11 months, not because the city gave in, but due to a decision by The Supreme Court of the United States2.
All my efforts could be as futile as Sisyphus pushing his boulder for eternity. Yet when faced with such an inevitably, we must live as if our lives matter. Even if we have no free will, we must live as if we do. Even if we live in a simulation, we must live as if we do not. As Camus would say, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy10.”
“Do what you can” -Martin Luther King (fictionalized, The Boondocks11)
You can fully realize all your moral purchasing decisions are symbolic against the weight of large mega-corps and their advertising budgets, but still make them anyway12.
What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention Disney Boycott?. 3 June 2002. Parham. Good Faith Media. ↩
What Streaming Music Services Actually Pay Artists. Retrieved 15 September 2021. InformationIsBeautiful.net ↩
Today I was banned for life from Paypal for donating to Quodverum.. 5 August 2021. @ThomasWic@social.quodverum.com (Archive from 6 August 2021) ↩
1984. Orwell. 1949 (novel) ↩
The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. Camus. Vintage International (eISBN: 978-0-307-82782-1, p. 135) ↩
Return of the King. The Boondocks. (S01E09 20m:25s) (2005) ↩