Is the BP Boycott unethical?

That the boycott is useless is a given. But is it also unethical?

That’s the claim that Chris Macdonald argues for at his Business Ethics blog. As Chris (and others) have pointed out, BP is no longer in the retail gasoline business. Almost all its outlets are privately run operations, not all of which sell exclusively BP gasoline. Other stations sell BP gasoline under different brand names, and besides, there aren’t many other companies out there that are ethically much better than BP. So, the boycott will hurt innocent small business owners, and not hurt the target at all. Sounds like a bad idea to me.

So how can you hurt BP, if that’s what you feel inclined to do? The best, and probably only, thing to do is radically reduce your fossil fuel consumption. Sell your car, buy a smaller house, stop flying, and so on. Alternatively (or should I say, in addition) you can redirect that anger to something positive — give money or time to one of the organizations working to mitigate the effects of the spill. Ultimately, the only serious solution will be a collective one, that keeps a lot more fossil fuel in the ground where it belongs. Might be time to sign up for the local chapter of Canadians for a Big Fat Carbon Tax.

Meanwhile, on a mostly unrelated topic, I’m having a contest over at my other blog. Entries more than welcome.




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Is the BP Boycott unethical?

  1. This is well worth considering. Ultimately a consumer boycott of BP is a boycott of the brand, which is devastated anyway. It doesn't seem worth the damage it will do to small businesses and it conveniently ignores our collective responsibility for the state of the petroleum industry.

    "The best, and probably only, thing to do is radically reduce your fossil fuel consumption. Sell your car, buy a smaller house, stop flying, and so on."

    Well, yes, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a few steps. If you needed to climb Mount Everest, you wouldn't just dive in, you would tackle smaller hills first. There are lots of non-radical changes within easy reach of all of us – a commitment to make those small changes is a great start and doesn't require you to reinvent your life.

    I agree that policy is the real way to make sure something like this never happens again. Lobbyists and politicians have been working together in the background for years. Voters need to muscle their way into those conversations so their priorities are translated into policy.

    • My assertion is the my protesting, and other actions targeting the perpetrator and it's brands are absolutely justified by the unethical conduct of the the perpetrator. Furthermore, I am fully prepared to testify that my action is in fact a direct result of the spill and therefore the 'small business' you refer to (I question this term since the real whiners in this space own 25+ stations) is in fact in a position to 'file a claim with BP for spill related damage'. BP deserves no protection as it's actions have been malicious, homicidal, and despicable.

  2. Leave it to Andrew Potter to present yet another risible treatise. I trust that he is walking or cycling to work, eating home-grown lentils, going to bed when the sun goes down and rising with the sun, bathing in cold water in a nearby brook rather than relying on (heaven forbid), water which was heated by some kind of fuel, and shaving with a sharpened stone rather than an electric razor or razor blade which ultimately was produced by the "industrial complex" utilizing, again, "fuel". Fatuous, thy name is Andrew Potter.

    • Sure, because it's a binary world with absolutely no space for operating between the extremes of be a vegan and exterminate all life. Solid logic at work there, and using "risible" and "fatuous" just impresses everyone all the more.

    • Did you actually read the article? He's not suggesting we give up our lifestyle, he's suggesting we implement a carbon tax. Which as you may have heard are two different things.

      • what life style? – I am so over-taxed now! i moved back to BC and we have a 12 % carbon tax that makes those of us without adequate means to commute suffer but the big city like Vancouver profits by ammenties they keep getting be it through the olympics or our collective forced taxes. Now it's the HST for a billion dollar sell out – compare that to the billion for another conferance of the big boys that empower corporations and investors like BP and 'mouth' more ideas how to save the world from enviromental damage. Tax increases do nothing cure the ills of corporations, they simply punish the poor and the rich don't care because they get credits against their fat incomes and marginal earners pay the price and live a paltry life not being able to implement costly savings for solar etc.
        or fancy hybrid cars……….talk, talk is all our gov. does or any gov! – their sponsorship comes from corporations they invest in. and give tax breaks to. I lived in Alberta for awhile – Stelmach is only hated there like Trudeau was…why ?because he actually enforced a royalty tax on the corporations and they 'pulled back' on production and slammed the province into a type of recessions..their problem has nothing to do with 'global' in my books. If you look around and actually study the last 40 years, never mind the next 50 years to reduce immissions……..the goals are totally short of winning..
        It's as stupid as 'smoking and tax' – if the gov. really wanted you to stop smoking, they wouldn't increase the tax, they'd ban cigararettes for sale and implement a plan to actually help you stop 'free' – not feed pharmaceutical co's
        coffers with $120 a month for stop smoking aids to 'buz' your mind to quit.
        we need some collective thinking on all fronts but people in this country are too apathetic to even vote properly or in decent numbers to get a concerned gov. that actually implements positive change.

  3. The best, and probably only, thing to do is radically reduce your fossil fuel consumption. Sell your car, buy a smaller house, stop flying, and so on.

    Honestly, Potter. Oil is a commodity. If one really wants to stick it to BP, your first suggestion is ridiculously ineffective. BP sells as much oil as it produces, and it won't sell a single drop less just because Joe Blow sells his car and starts biking to work. There is a certain inevitability to global commodity prices.

    If you hate BP and want to hurt it, protest! Stand up and make your voice heard.

    • Did you read the part where he suggested a carbon tax? Because I'm pretty sure that's what he's getting at.

      • A carbon tax may be a good idea for other reasons, but it won't "hurt BP".

  4. It's a bad oil spill not the end of the world. Get some perspective. In the 70's Pemex had a blow out that lasted 9 MONTHS and spilled 11+ million barrels. Pemex was owned by the Mexican government who claimed sovereign immunity and wouldn't pay out on lawsuits. No one even remembers this now.
    Meanwhile the Obama stops all drilling and puts thousands of oil workers out of work and dozens of oil service companies into bankruptcy. For what? Political grandstanding, so he can look like he is "doing something".

    • So how many more spills, of what size, over what time frame, are going to be ok/ rationed out/ ignored as long as each one in itself isn't the end of the world?

  5. Well it comes down to whether the angry public's thinking "F the small franchise owners" or "if-you're-going-to-put-a-company's-name-on-your-sign-then-you'd-better-be-ready-to-take-the-business-and-the-heat," and locales being able to quickly cope/adapt with that. I think McDonald's franchise owners go into business more self aware than gas station owners do!

    • Interesting point. It's true that BP franchisees have cast their lot with the brand, and so to a certain extent they can't complain when they suffer due to the affiliation. I'd like to know more about the options open to a potential franchisee, when they consider going into the business. I wonder if the choices open to them are such that they can be thought of as making the decision on ethical grounds (i.e., grounds for which they should later be held accountable). Basically, the franchisee-to-be has to choose between dealing with a handful oil companies, none of which really has clean hands.

    • I agree Derek.

      Contracts are for better or worse, however, hindsight pseudo-philosophical analysis notwithstanding.

      Franchising is a unique form of commercial activity. It provides legal insulation for the brand owners while exposing the franchisee to the risks of franchisor opportunism.

      BP is a fully-informed franchisor and achieves the benefits of their choice of corporate governance. They have created the business model and independent contractors have chosen/not chosen to enter into a contract with them.

      Franchisees who cut corners into small business by renting a trademark controlled by others should achieve the benefits and costs for THEIR decisions.

      Renting someone else's brand is a risky business that should not be militated away so easily.

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

  6. Andrew, your point about reducing your fossil fuel consumption is nonsense because that will NOT reduce the amount of oil we use. Why? because the bulk of oil is not used in SUV's cars and the like. In fact most oil isnt used in cars at all, we use about 44% of oil for transportation, but huge portions of that are things like trucks and heavy duty onstruction equipment.. Second, oil is used to make ashphalt, rubber, lubricants, and for a multitude of other things. Here is the rub, even if you were to cut our consumption for fuel, we would still need the oil to make the plastic for the batteris of electric cars and fo the solar panels of solar cars. Also, we would need oil to make the plastics that we wouldneed to make cars light enough to travel efficently on electric power. Say what you want, but your not replacng a drop of oil.

    • All true (well, perhaps exaggerated — if I use less oil, less is consumed, but only by a trivial amount). But your overall point seems right.

      I think Andrew's point (and mine) is that if you (or rather we, collectively) want to do ANYTHING effective, it has to be in the realm of reducing reliance on fossil fuels, rather than venting rage (in an off-target way) at one particular company when things go wrong.

      • Yes, but bitching is so much easier to do than actually getting up and doing something meaningful. ;-)

  7. The closest parallel in the Canadian oil patch would be the political activism against Talisman Energy (formerly BP Canada) to force divestment out of their very profitable Sudan holdings – a country that US based O&G companies had been previously forced to divest from due to the political situation there, and human rights abuses.

    Led by British born Jim Buckee, Talisman tried stonewalling and justifying their investment there on ethical grounds – better to have us there as a Canadian counterweight, than say letting China in. It started publicly with protests by Sudanese Canadians outside of Talisman's AGMs in Calgary, and spread to other NGOs, religious groups etc. This resulted in a great deal of management time being spent on an issue that, in the grand scheme of things, was not a significant asset of theirs. And it depressed their stock price.

    Eventually, Talisman divested, and sold off its Sudan holdings at a large profit. I think this was during or before Darfur.

    A lengthy summary here: http://tinyurl.com/36e42ng

  8. I have been in the safety bussiness for years, and i wish i had 10 bucks for everytime I've heard that it will never happen or it hardly ever happens. The only way to get them to move is to fine them into the stone age or possibly boycott them. And still often they don't respond is, generally to do business as usual and take the fine because it is cheaper, than fixing the problem.

  9. Gee Andrew, I think I can name that tune in four notes.

    In 1983 the Trudeau government bought BP's Canadian operations, handing them over to PetroCanada.

    PetroCanada is now owned by Suncor.

    Suncor was the original developer of the Alberta oilsands. BP has been involved in the oilsands since 2007.

    So, if we all boycott PetroCanada, maybe BP will get the message and pull out of the oilsands.

    (Of course, they might just buy out Suncor instead, but that doesn't really help me here).

    How's that?

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