How to save the world without leaving your high street

Protest politics learn to use the consumer
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Why can you not buy Burmese underwear in British Home Stores any more? Why was Clare Short pictured recently beside a man dressed as a prawn? Why is a West Sussex-based toiletries and cosmetics company running a world-wide campaign for minority rights in Nigeria? Why has the ethically in-your-face Co-operative Bank sharply increased its turnover and profits in recent years (up by 34 per cent in 1995)?

The common answer is the creeping globalisation, but also consumerisation, of single-issue protest politics. The causes espoused are many and varied - maybe self-defeatingly so - but the message and methods are broadly the same: you can help to change the world without leaving your own high street.

Tomorrow, the Burma Action Group will hold a rally at the Royal Institution in central London (guest stars will be Glenys Kinnock MEP and the writer John Pilger; the sponsor is The Independent) to further its efforts to discourage British tourism to Burma.

Last weekend, the charity Christian Aid held a conference at Central Hall in Westminster as part of its campaign to urge supermarkets in the United Kingdom to improve the economic and social conditions of their Third World suppliers.

Andrew Simms of Christian Aid says: "Our aim is to give people a tool through which they can grasp that they are directly related to events all around the globe. People vote every time they go to the supermarket."

The plan is to list the stores according to their treatment of poorer countries and allow shoppers to decide which ones to use. (It was to help Christian Aid launch its campaign that Ms Short found herself standing next to a human shellfish.)

Similarly, the Co-op Bank turned the screw last week in its campaign to shame its high-street competitors into severing links with the arms trade and, specifically, with manufacturers of land-mines. The Co-op's declared supporters range from the singer Luciano Pavarotti to Teresa Gorman MP.

According to Ethical Consumer magazine, based in Manchester, there are 36 consumer boycotts in operation in the UK. Most are for environmental or animal welfare causes. But an increasing number - eight at the most recent count - have international political or humanitarian objectives.

Equivalent protests are mushrooming across Europe and in the United States. They can be divided into three main categories: first, direct boycotts of nations; second, boycotts of companies which trade or invest with controversial countries; and third, a more subtle variation (promoted by Amnesty International, among others), the lobbying of large multi- national companies to use their influence to improve respect for human rights in their host countries.

In a sense, none of this is new. Anti-apartheid campaigners made Barclays Bank and Cape fruit impolite words in liberal company in the Sixties and Seventies. At one point in the Seventies it became impossible for a liberal to eat an orange. South African? Chilean? Spanish?

The first and most successful human-rights campaign of all time - the anti-slavery crusade of the late-18th and early-19th centuries - employed the same techniques, tracing unsuspected connections between people's everyday lives and faraway suffering. For instance, a boycott of West Indian sugar was organised.

But the proliferation of such campaigns in recent years suggests that something is stirring: or maybe a mixture of several things. Sir Geoffrey Chandler, Chairman of the Amnesty International UK Business Group, points to a growing impatience with traditional political structures; coupled with a growing, television-generated appreciation of the humanity of distant peoples.

To this should be added an unheralded aspect of economic globalism: it makes even obscure regimes vulnerable to the protests - or at least the pinpricks - of Western consumers.

"I think it is fair to say we are witnessing the emergence of a kind of global consciousness, or global conscience, to match the globalism of business and also the globalism of information," Sir Geoffrey said.

Rob Harrison, co-editor of Ethical Consumer magazine, makes a similar point: "As business becomes more global and escapes national controls, it is up to the market - in other words the consumer - to impose some kind of minimum acceptable standards."

Does all this amount to anything more than a kind of self-pleasing moralising? Can it really make any difference? If sanctions are ineffective at government-to-government level, can they be effective at people-to-government level? What right have we, in any case, to lecture other countries?

Kevin Myers, one of the more thoughtful right-wing commentators, complained in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper recently that the bien-pensant liberal- left has taken over the global busybodiness of the imperial right. Putting pressure on international companies to influence humanitarian, ecological or economic conditions in the Third World amounts, he said, to advocating "fingernail inspections by a new generation of district commissioner".

Clare Short, Labour's spokeswoman on overseas aid, and a vocal supporter of consumer campaigns, rejects this as "plain stupid".

"Imperialism was about exploiting other peoples. These campaigns are about the opposite. It is about people deciding that they are not going to spend their own money on goods which have been produced in an exploitative way or by, say, using pesticides which leave children crippled. There are potentially powerful forces at work here."

Some unease about what is going on may, none the less, be justified. Many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are dubious about the effectiveness of boycotts. Consumer outrage can appear selective. No one can dispute the vicious disdain for human rights of the military regimes in Burma or Nigeria. But why is there no consumer campaign against China? Or Iran?

Yvette Mahon, of the Burma Action Group, accepts that a human-rights argument could be made for withholding tourism from many other Third-World countries. "Our argument is that Burma is a special case because its regime is particularly brutal and repressive and it has itself raised the tourist issue by declaring a `Visit Myanmar Year'.

"Beyond that, Burmese people, including children, are being conscripted as slave labour, specifically for schemes to provide facilities for tourists."

How effective is the campaign? The Burmese government says, despite the protests world-wide, that it anticipates a 40 per cent rise in visitors next year. The Burma Action Group confidently predicts no increase in tourism from Britain. Several UK tour companies have already dropped Burma from their schedules. In the United States, a string of leading clothes companies, including Levi, have cancelled imports from Burma. British Home Stores has also discontinued contracts for Burmese textiles (although the store insists that political pressure was not the reason).

The history of consumer protests - from Barclays and South Africa onwards - is littered with examples of companies being discomfited by association with repressive regimes. It is harder to prove any serious example of successful consumer pressure on the regimes themselves.

South Africa is the great exception. Economic pressure, which began with consumer boycotts and led to disinvestment and the reluctance of international banks to roll over loans, were central factors in the collapse of apartheid.

More recent attempts to mount a consumer boycott against Shell because of its interests in Nigeria had little effect on pump sales. However, coupled with the Brent Spar eco-protests, they did cause a senior Shell International executive, Cor Herkstroter, to admit that the company should pay more attention to consumers' environmental and political concerns. Shell is now said to be considering including references to human rights in a redrafted statement of its business aims.

Sir Geoffrey Chandler (himself a former senior Shell executive) says that human-rights campaigners tend to exaggerate the political clout of companies; but, equally, large companies tend to play down their capacity to exert political influence.

The giant corporations, such as Shell, have annual turnovers equivalent to the gross domestic product of a dozen Third-World nations; they have the weight to demand from host governments all kinds of concessions on taxes and regulations. They can - and should in their own interest - Sir Geoffrey argues, exert influence for minimum standards of human rights in the countries where they operate.

In their own interests? Human rights promote stability, he argues, and stability always serves the interests of business (arms traders apart). He also argues that association with brutal regimes will increasingly damage a company's good name, and the good name of a company is a precious asset.

In reply to the "imperialist do-gooder" jibe, Sir Geoffrey waves the text of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that basic rights transcend national boundaries and cultures and should be promoted by all individuals and institutions (that is, even by banks and oil companies).

Amnesty does not in itself support, or oppose, economic boycotts of companies or countries. It believes that companies can have more influence by staying in a country and exerting pressure for change. But Sir Geoffrey predicts that it will increasingly become a fact of life that companies which fail to pay heed to humanitarian concerns will fall foul of their customers.

"Take as your guide the environmental lobby," he said. "Twenty years ago its influence was minimal. Now almost every company takes it into account as a matter of course. The same will happen in the next 20 years with human rights."