Boycotts target friends of Bush

Efforts to change the president's mind on the Kyoto treaty may affect US firms in Europe.

Don't drink that Coke. Set down the Listerine mouthwash. Kick off your Dr. Scholls sandals. And don't even think about buying a pack of Marlboros or a pint of Killarney's beer.

That's the message from Ethical Consumer, a British-based nonprofit group that's widely regarded in Europe for its support of socially responsible companies. EC is trying to organize consumer boycotts of some of America's leading companies. The real target is President Bush, and the aim is to get him to change his policy over the Kyoto global warming treaty. The companies - all of which gave funds to Mr. Bush's election campaign - may get stuck in the middle.

Consumer boycotts are nothing new. But the campaign over Kyoto has so raised the ire of groups and individuals that a mass of companies could end up getting hit in Europe. Most prominently targeted is Coca-Cola, the subject not only of the EC's attentions but also of a group of British parliamentarians led by Nigel Griffiths, a Labour member of Parliament from Scotland.

Bush decided last month to abandon the Kyoto Protocol, signed by President Clinton in 1997. The agreement aims to limit industrial emissions of greenhouse gases thought to cause global warming, but Bush said that it would harm the US economy. Immediate protests from governments and from environmental movements around the world followed.

Friends of the Earth sent more than 50,000 e-mails to the White House within five days. Members of the Green Party in the European Parliament called for sanctions against the US on April 5, including a consumer boycott of Texaco, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, regarded by many in the green movement as having helped to swing the policy change. Greenpeace occupied a US-owned oil rig in the North Sea.

But it may be yet other companies that suffer, and Coca-Cola is at the top of the list. It is not being singled out because of its own attitude toward global warming, though environmental groups have targeted it in the past over other issues. As one of the world's leading consumer brands, focused on the youth market, it is seen by campaigners as vulnerable.

"Coca-Cola has adopted the slogan, 'Think global, act local,' " Mr. Griffiths points out. "It adopted that slogan precisely because it is in tune with young consumers who care passionately about the environment." Now, Griffiths and others want the company to put the green argument to Bush.

"We want his friends to change his mind," says Griffiths. The aim is to get a shift in US policy ahead of a meeting on climate change to be held in Bonn, Germany, in July.

The company has defended itself. "Responsible stewardship of the environment is a top priority for The Coca-Cola Company," it said in a statement. "Our long-term success depends on quenching the thirst of consumers each day in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner."

It had taken the Kyoto Protocol into account when drawing up new plans for buying refrigeration equipment, it said. But, it adds: "We do business in nearly 200 countries and believe that implementation of specific treaties and protocols should be left to national political processes." A spokesman in London declined to comment further.

EC has drawn up a long list of products to boycott, including Budweiser beer, Aquafresh toothpaste, Microsoft Windows, Victoria's Secret lingerie, and The Times newspaper (London). The parent companies are alleged to have been donors to the Bush campaign, and alternative products are suggested.

Consumer boycotts have a mixed record. A campaign against the Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch/Shell over the planned dumping of an oil rig at sea led to a wholesale rethinking of corporate strategy. In the 1980s, consumer groups organized a boycott of infant-formula manufacturer Nestle, and campaigners opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa targeted Barclays Bank in Britain. Each was credited with contributing to a shift in corporate policy.

"Consumer boycotts can be effective," says Sigmund Wagner, a researcher at Britain's Leicester University. The Royal Dutch/Shell boycott, organized by Greenpeace, was a case in point, he says. But many others have come to naught. EC lists 37 such campaigns on its website. "Once you get to that level, you boycott almost everything," says Mr. Wagner.

There are also broader questions about the strategy. Greenpeace later admitted that much of the evidence it used to back the case for a boycott of Royal Dutch/Shell was wrong, and apologized to the company. "It was effective, but you could question the ethical behavior behind it, given what Greenpeace later said," argues Wagner.

This time, the diverse groups that have come together over Kyoto believe they have a good chance of making an impact. "The majority of companies we're targeting don't have anything invested in carbon emissions," says Matthew Fawcett, a researcher at EC. "If they feel they're losing business from something that is not profitable for them, they should feel able to act."

The Kyoto row may come at a delicate moment. The anti-globalization movement, which emerged in force at the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting in 1999, is regrouping, and there are plans for more events and protests this year, including action at the Bonn meeting. The world's Green movement held a meeting in Australia earlier this month to focus its global activities, and a boycott of oil companies was high on its agenda.

Action against companies - through boycotts, protests and direct action - is increasingly in vogue. "Investors, both individual and institutional, are increasingly being targeted by activists as a way of winning a corporate change of tack. Protesters, too, have found the soft corporate underbelly of the bottom line," wrote Britain's left-of-center Guardian newspaper this week.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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