The Incredibly Unethical BP Boycott

Readers of Ethics Alarms know that I think boycotting is at best economic bullying, at worst a non-violent form of terrorism, and generally unethical except in cases so rare that they are difficult to imagine. The current BP boycott is close to the worst variety, blunt and destructive mob anger akin to the reaction of the excitable citizens of Homer Simpson’s Springfield, whose solution to every crisis seems to be a riot.

BP was outrageously and perhaps criminally negligent in creating the conditions that led to the Gulf oil spill, and it is right and just that the burden of accountability and responsibility has fallen on them. And it certainly has fallen on them: as much as every citizen of the United States may want to personally kick the company while it is prone, the fact is that the dire consequences of its misconduct are already overwhelming, both long and short-term. Right now, the Gulf states are still dependent on the diligence and expertise of the company to try to limit the damage it has caused, and the company is, if only for its own survival, doing the best it can to succeed. This fact alone would make a public boycott of BP at this time senseless and counter-productive.

The boycott is also unfair. Making the company’s shareholders the sole scapegoats of the entire fiasco is wilfully ignorant of the undeniable fact that while the company recklessly dug deep-water oil wells without a proven, viable, fail-safe plan in place to address this unlikely but always possible scenario, the Federal regulators who had the responsibility to require such a plan failed their duty utterly, and unlike BP, the government has not been accepting its share of responsibility, preferring to demonize BP. The company deserves most of the anger; boycotts, if they are going to be used at all to express public outrage at a misdeed, must be aimed at a villain who deserves virtually all of it. In this case, there is no such villain. There are many.

The BP boycott is even worse than this, however. As explained in today’s story in the Chicago Tribune, boycotting BP gas stations does not harm the oil company’s profits, because BP doesn’t own the 11,000 BP-branded stations in the United States that are currently being savaged by the boycott. The boycott of BP stations doesn’t even necessarily stop the sales of BP oil, because the gasoline sold at its branded filling stations come from many sources, no matter  what the sign over the station says. The boycott simply savages independent franchise owners and their families, people who had no more to do with the BP oil spill than Homer Simpson did, and a lot less to do with it than Congress, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

If sales volume drops and BP gets stuck with unpurchased gasoline, the Chicago Tribune reports, it can quickly and easily wholesale the excess to stations that sell gas without a brand name.

What an unfair, misguided, pointless, irresponsible, counter-productive, stupid boycott!

Consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen helped to launched it, and Facebook, which should re-name itself “Boycott Board”, naturally produced a boycott page with more than 600,000 supporters. Paul Fiore, executive vice president of the Service Station Dealers of America and Allied Trades, told the Tribune that BP station owners claim business is down as much as 20%. “It’s a totally misguided attempt by frustrated people,” he said. “They are not going to harm BP, I guarantee you.”

Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen actually tells the Tribune that the objective of the boycott is to hurt the company’s image, not necessarily to affect short-term profits. This is, to be restrained, very hard to believe.  The image of BP is being battered daily by the live video of oil streaming into the Gulf. Every oil-covered bird, every tar covered beach, every weeping fisherman and furious local politician hurts the company’s image far more than any boycott can or could. Public Citizen thinks it worth ruining the finances of thousands of hard-working Americans to add a little more bad publicity to all that? Ridiculous. All right, no more restraint: I don’t believe it, and I don’t believe Public Citizen believes it either.

This boycott is about anger and revenge, recklessly hurting innocent people for the “crime” of being associated with a company that did something those people could not have prevented and would never have approved. That’s the philosophy of terrorism. That’s hate.

This is a terrible boycott, and its organizers, particularly Public Citizen, are harming their own image worse than they are harming BP’s.

22 thoughts on “The Incredibly Unethical BP Boycott

  1. There’s another aspect to this, too. From what I’ve heard, a lot of retirement funds- some of them pretty major- are tied up in BP’s stocks. This is the last thing we need, given the general state of those things.

  2. I see your point and don’t think a mindless boycott is the answer, but I also think it’s up to all people — workers, investors, purchasers — to try harder to make companies and the government more responsible and accountable by not patronizing them. Once I know that a company has acted unethically, discourteously, irresponsibly, I can thoughtfully choose not to shop, work or invest there. I know the oil spill — and the lack of transparency at both BP and the government — is not the direct responsibility of the independent station owners, but people who take advantage of the BP (or any other) logo and marketing to bring in business, have to take part of the hit when things go bad. My goal is not to hurt the company — I know they won’t miss my occasional $40 purchase — but to take my business to a place that I believe is more responsible and transparent, to make a choice about what’s important to me in the long term as well as the short term. I understand that not everyone has the financial ability or desire to reward good behavior with a few extra $$, or the option to change jobs if they disagree with their company’s actions, and that many who boycott BP are doing so out of frustration (and might race to BP stations if gas were offered for $1.99), but I don’t think it’s wrong if anyone chooses to avoid BP and other companies that don’t meet his or her personal standards when there are other options.

  3. Jack,
    Boycotts have an EXTREMELY limited success rate. I’m not sure it counts as terrorism if it doesn’t cause anyone any harm (and, meanwhile, makes arm-chair activists feel better about themselves). Boycotts largely act as a way for the uninvolved to feel involved by being apart of something.

    It’s not that I necessarily disagree with your points, but off all the ethical abuses, this is nit-picking.

    -Neil

    • Hmmm. Although this is in the “no harm-no foul” category of excuses for ethical actions, no? If you intend to do harm and fail, it is onlty moral luck that separates you from someone who succeeds, right? Consequentialism. Besides, it seems clear, if that 20% figure is right, that this boycott IS doing real harm.

  4. Jack,
    Small addendum .. consumers make personal decisions on where and where not to purchase goods. If I choose to avoid Wal-Mart because I hate blue or because they employ sweat-shop labor, what does it matter? Is either choice unethical? Boycotts are simply that on a larger scale — encouraging like-minded consumers to avoid products which they consider to benefit undeserving parties. It might be one thing if the boycott were compulsory, but it isn’t, people can still decide for themselves whether or not to take part.

    Moreover, I’ve never heard you speak out against trade embargoes or economic sanctions (which are boycotts on a nationwide scale) and yet those are used systematically by this country and others as a means of forcing policy change. Where’s the ire against the embargo against Cuba, or the sanctions against Iran? Both may be evil, sure, but its the innocents who are getting hurt in each case.

    Again, it’s not that I disagree, but some perspective would be nice ..

    • …and I rely on YOU to supply it!

      I don’t think a single individual’s decision not to patronize a store is just a fractal of a boycott. I detest Friday’s and the restaurant’s miserable treatment of my family caused me to write the company and promise never to eat there again…and I haven’t. What they did lost my business, and an unknowable amount of future income, which 1) is a fair punishment and 2) an incentive to avoid similar scenarios.

      A boycott, however, by its size and scope, has victims and unintended consequences out of all proportion to the original harm, whatever it was. They are different in kind, not just volume

  5. “…BP doesn’t own the 11,000 BP-branded stations in the United States that are currently being savaged by the boycott. The boycott of BP stations doesn’t even necessarily stop the sales of BP oil, because the gasoline sold at its branded filling stations come from many sources, no matter what the sign over the station says.”

    I found this most interesting, and I believe it begs the following question…”If BP stations get their fuels from other non-BP sources, how many non-BP stations get their fuels from BP?” I don’t know how it all works, but it’s certainly possible that people, in their haste to avoid BP stations, will end up putting BP gas in their vehicles.

    A rather cruel twist of fate for those seeking BP’s demise.

    Regards,
    Joel

    • The article suggests that, indeed, this is true. The boycotters are likely to end up buying BP gas while boycotting other stations that aren’t selling it. Gooooood plan…

  6. I can’t see the BP brand recover from this. The gas station franchises might vanish. The small owners doesn’t deserve this but these people chose a BP franchise over other options, including being an independant gas station. As they are discovering, there are some downsides to tie yourself with a careless, greedy corporation.

    The best solution would be BP to sell its franchise network to another oil corporation with a better profile.

    • I can’t see the argument that BP franchise owners deserve what they get because they chose BP. Before this, BP was traded as an “ethical” energy company. That was part of its public image. It’s quite possible that BP franchise owners care MORE about the environment than non-BP owners.

  7. You are completely right and I think somewhat wrong. You are somewhat wrong in the sense that I don’t see anything wrong with people deciding to stop patronizing a company that is negligent, gives bad service, etc. There are many products I won’t buy, even if they are cheaper, because of that. It’s not exactly a boycot, but it’s close.

    You are completely right that you cannot boycott BP. You can’t choose what gas you buy. You get gas from whatever terminal the gas truck went to that day. As such, I think the entire petroleum industry should be regulated as a monopoly. They provide an essential service and the public cannot choose which company to do business with. They should be regulated like the electric and natural gas companies.

  8. BP was told of oil safety fault ‘weeks before blast’

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/us_and_canada/10362139.stm

    You are right about our government,but BP has from a 100% fault, 98% . Ad they need to pay for it. Personally I don’t cares if its 40% American, they need to solve the problem as soon as possible. I don’t see any progress. And call the people that dislike this situation and calling them a non-violent form of terrorism is over the top

    According to BBC news.

    “We saw a leak on the pod, so by seeing the leak we informed the company men,” Mr Benton said of the earlier problem he had identified. “They have a control room where they could turn off that pod and turn on the other one, so that they don’t have to stop production.”

    “BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure,” Mr Waxman said.

    I think we need to defend what is fair! and strike against what is not, so we can get back our America!

    • Did you actually read the post? This sure doesn’t sound like it to me. 1) The boycott doesn’t help BP do anything better or faster. 2) The main point of the article is that the boycott hurts almost exclusively people who had no part in the event at all. Your comment doesn’t relate to the issues at in question.

  9. Market behaviour is neither ethical nor logical: always has been, always will be.

    Commercial actors know this or can be reasonably be expected to know this.

    There are unavoidable business risks when you rent not own a tradename. BP has chosen to use this business model for 5 of its 6 international brands.

    Current franchisees had the opportunity to not sign their franchise agreement or militate their risks otherwise.

    Let the market decide.

    Les Stewart MBA
    Midhurst ON Canada
    FranchiseFool : WikidFranchise.org : LinkedIn

    • Odd comment. Just because market behavior is not often rational or ethical doesn’t mean is can’t or shouldn’t be. The frachisees hardly had reason to know a boycott for a once in a century instance of unbelievable recklessness and stupidity was in the cards—one might even argue that francisees who were most ethically responsible had reason to think the BP brand was the safest one to work with. It’s kind of harsh to say “they asked for it.” Clearly, they didn’t.

      • Jack,

        Every businessperson, through their actions or inactions, either militates against or invites risk.

        “Knew or could be reasonably been expected to know” a risk I believe is the standard.

        Incompetent management (BP or franchisees) should not survive a massive decrease to shareholder wealth. A manager’s only job is to increase wealth.

        Is it “fair”, in your view, to take the benefits of a brand if it is +ve but then to refuse to accept the costs of the decision if the outcome is -ve?

        Business is hard.

        Sorry.

        Les Stewart MBA
        Midhurst ON Canada
        FranchiseFool : WikidFranchise.org : LinkedIn

        • But Les—who said they could refuse? I didn’t. I’m just saying that it is unfair. I know business is unfair and life is unfair, and that that’s what you risk when you’re involved with either. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make it less unfair. Yeah–hitch your wagon to a star that turns into an anchor, and you risk drowning. I’m still not going to exonerate the guy holding my head under water just because he’s pissed off at what my “star” did.

    • That’s a typical non-argument argument: an opinion you disagree with must be corrupt, because you can only see one narrow point of view. A real argument would make the case that a boycott actually accomplishes something productive to balance the harm it does to innocent investors, but you can’t offer that, because it doesn’t exist.

      By the way, BP hasn’t “ruined” anything. It’s a negligent company in a risky, if important business that screwed up, wishes it didn’t, and will pay for it. If you think spitting at it will do any good, be my guest. Most people over the age of six learn that there are fairer, smarter ways to express disapproval.

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