It is blatantly obvious that neither the government nor the corporate world is going to willingly work to address the problem of climate change. Consumer action is our only recourse for the time being. Our only power over all the companies that have bought off Washington and have spent millions to misinform the public is through the money that we spend on their products.

Boycotts are perhaps the most popular form of consumer action. The idea is to punish companies that have behaved badly by hitting them in the bottom line. A recent example is the BP oil spill. Numerous groups popped up on Facebook and other social media sites encouraging people to no longer buy BP gas. Although such efforts were passionate and well-intentioned, they were doomed to fail for a number of reasons:

1)      Companies as large and wealthy as BP can easily weather short periods of bad business. They plan for such things, in fact. An effective boycott of a corporation would require a widespread effort maintained over a period of years.

2)      Even if a boycott managed to drive a company out of business, it would not fundamentally change the industry. Instead of buying BP gas, people would go to Shell or Chevron – who aren’t any better. The overall amount of oil being produced and burned would remain the same, the overall threat to the environment would remain, and the only difference is that different people would be getting filthy rich. Our efforts should seek to change industry-wide behavior, not just the actions of an individual corporation.  . . .

3)      The global economy and the way products are distributed is more complex than many people realize. Refusing to buy a brand at the local level may or may not affect the larger corporation, and could only punish people who have nothing to do with the bad behavior in question. Because of the complexities of the worldwide oil industry, a BP boycott really only hurts the local station owner and the people who work there.

In short, if we want to use consumer pressure to bring about lasting change in the practices of the world’s largest corporations, we must get more creative than short-term, single-company boycotts. They accomplish nothing, especially when it comes to climate change – a problem which requires long-term, systemic, and global efforts for change.

Here are a few examples of more effective ways to do consumer activism. Each one will be expanded into a complete article as I continue this series on “Climate Change: What Now?”

1)      Coordinated efforts to use less and less gasoline each year – forcing oil companies to seriously invest in better alternatives.

2)      Coordinated efforts to expand awareness of local food and other consumer practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

3)      Coordinated efforts that demand corporations to use their influence to push for better legislation on climate change.

4)      Coordinated efforts that reward companies who are operating in environmentally sound ways or who are making sincere efforts to improve.

5)      Coordinated efforts at letter writing/emailing/calling to corporations and elected officials.

Notice that the common bond between all of these methods is “coordinated efforts.” The one great failure of the climate change movement is that it has been too disorganized, with activists doing good work here and there but often not being on the same page with one another.

There is great concern and potential for action on climate change in the general public. The problem is that most people feel that it’s the government’s job to change things, or that the individual citizen is powerless in the face of such a daunting challenge. With some fresh ideas and renewed efforts at coordination, I hope we can change that.

[photo by xcorex via flickr]