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Should we boycott Russia, Russian products and Russian companies?

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many are asking whether we should boycott Russia? Companies have pulled out of the country with astonishing speed, and brands that are yet to make a statement have been targeted on social media. 

Here we give information on the current Russia boycott calls, so you can make an informed decision on which campaigns you’d like to support, if any.

 

Ukraine government calls for Russia boycott

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for an international trade embargo. On Monday March 7th, speaking in a video address, Zelensky said: “If the invasion continues and Russia has not abandoned its plans against Ukraine, then a new sanctions package is needed…”

This includes “a boycott of Russian exports, in particular the rejection of oil and oil products from Russia.” He also said that Russia should also not receive goods and services from abroad “if [Russia] doesn’t want to abide by civilised rules.” 

Zelensky continues to call on international companies to sever ties with Russia as we write this in late March.

On 15 March Oleg Ustenko, economic adviser to President Zelensky, told the New York Times “We’re talking about supplying Russia with bloody money that they’re using to feed a military machine that is killing my people [...] We need a full embargo, a full boycott. All Russian ports must be closed.”

Formal boycott campaigns

1) www.boycottrussia.info

On March 9th a new website www.boycottrussia.info was launched to list companies taking action and those not. When this article was written, the number of brands criticised for taking “no recorded action” was running at around 75 on its website. 

However, it appears that this list may not be up to date as it lists companies such as Toyota as having taken no action when in fact it has suspended operations in Russia. The boycottrussia.info website is also calling on western firms to stop advertising on Russian state TV

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) is similarly calling on brands to “reconsider” their media and marketing investments in Russia. The WFA says that it polled its members and of the 31 global brand owners that responded (representing a total of $43bn in global ad spend), three quarters had reallocated, reduced or cut spending in Russia altogether. 

2) Putin100.org

On March 10th a new website was launched listing full details of the 100 financial institutions most heavily entangled in Russian oil and gas, at Putin100.org.

Its ranking appears to be based on data from November 2021 and February 2022, so some of the companies may have already pulled out of Russia. For example, the Putin100 website lists BlackRock as a major investor, whereas the Yale list (see below) says BlackRock has fully withdrawn and curtailed “Russian access to capital markets”. 

Just over 1m people have signed an Avaaz petition linked to on the Putin100 website calling on EU leaders, world governments, and CEOs of major finance firms to stop doing business with Russian fossil fuel companies. 

Russian flag with three horizontal stripes, white on top, blue in middle, red on bottom

Companies pulling out of Russia

Although some consumer boycott hashtags (#boycottcocacola) have briefly flared into existence, companies have, by and large, chosen to leave long before any direct consumer economic impact has had time to make itself felt. 

Concerted pressure by mainstream western news outlets, combined with daily assaults on social media, has left few companies wanting to debate the merits of staying behind publicly. 

Several companies joined the list of companies suspending operations in Russia following boycott calls after they initially failed to speak out, such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola and Uniqlo (who originally tried to argue that its clothing was 'a necessity').

Companies continue to be targeted by boycott campaigns due to not withdrawing from Russia. 

For example, Anonymous has called for a boycott of Nestle, stating that it is “well known that @Nestle refuses to leave the Russian market, they will continue to pay taxes there, thus supporting the murder of citizens in #Ukraine.” It continued, “Do not buy products of sponsors to tyranny, #BoycottNestle!”

Up to date lists of companies and Russia policy

In general businesses and retailers have announced supporting measures with a historically unprecedented speed. 

The Yale School of Management has kept an up-to-date list of companies that have withdrawn from Russia. 

According to the list, as of 22 March a total of 166 companies have completely withdrawn from Russia, including:

  • Airbnb
  • Asda
  • Asos
  • BlackRock
  • BP
  • eBay
  • Netflix
  • Sainsbury’s
  • Spotify

186 companies have temporarily suspended operations with Russia while specifying that they are keeping options open for return, including:

  • Adidas
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Caterpillar
  • Disney
  • H&M
  • Nike
  • Starbucks
  • YouTube
  • Renault

And a further 28 companies are said to be ‘reducing’ their current operations in Russia, including:

  • Allianz
  • Bacardi
  • Bosch
  • Carlsberg
  • HSBC
  • JPMorgan
  • Natura
  • Pepsi
  • Whirlpool

Some 54 companies are ‘buying time’, so holding off on new investments or developments, such as:

  • Cargill
  • Colgate-Palmolive
  • Danone
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Kellogg
  • Mars
  • Nestle
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Unilever

And 33 companies are listed as “Defying demands for exit or reduction of activities”, including:

  • AstraZeneca
  • Cloudflare
  • Credit Suisse
  • Decathlon
  • Emirates Airlines
  • Koch Industries
  • Ralph Lauren
  • SC Johnson
Anti war demo about Russian invasion of Ukraine with various placards, one visible says Stop Putin
Image by Katie Godowski from Pexels

Sporting and cultural boycott of Russia

At least 30 international sporting federations have also joined the boycott including FIFA, football's global governing body, which has announced that it was suspending all Russian teams from international competition until further notice. 

In addition, a wide range of education, science and research collaborations with Russian institutions have been paused or otherwise affected.

Eurovision banned Russian artists from participating, the Cannes Film Festival will not welcome official Russian delegations, and the Royal Collection, held in trust by the Queen, withdrew permission for the Kremlin to display its sword collection. 

Criticisms of the boycott

While the response to boycott calls has been significant, it has faced criticism.

1) A false sense of achievement

Patrick Cockburn argued in iNews that sanctions “give a false sense of achievement which is largely illusory”. He argues that while they “inflict collective punishment on entire populations” the “least affected are invariably the country’s leadership”. 

Others however, argue that sanctions can have a powerful impact, such as Anita Ramasastry at the School of Law at the University of Washington.

2) Ordinary civilians pay the price?

One criticism is that the impacts of companies exiting Russia upon ordinary people has not been fully considered. Some argue that more energy needs to be put into thinking about what sorts of economic activity leads to bad outcomes for ordinary people, and which sorts overcome these outcomes.

Measures such as Visa and Mastercard leaving the country could also cut off Russians who are critical of the invasion, leaving them without access to funds, according to one journalist who told the BBC “thousands of people, including not only journalists but opposition activists and even common people who are scared of Putin's regime and are running from war will be cut from their little money.”

Pharmaceutical products are for example important for the general health of the Russian population so it could be considered important that these do not fully withdraw from Russia. 

Cockburn, a journalist in the inews, argues that when Iraq faced sanctions these led to “children dying in hospitals because there were not enough oxygen cylinders”. He says “People outside Iraq wrongly felt that economic warfare must be kinder than the military variety”.

This assertion appears to fly in the face of overwhelming evidence that, in the main, economic ‘warfare’ is considerably kinder than dropping bombs on people. It has been a core understanding of and the basis for the international architecture for peace that is now manifest in the UN institutions. Economic measures are rightly encouraged as a first resort in cases of conflict.

Some still argue that for the sake of ordinary citizens, blanket sanctions should not be used and instead more consideration should be paid to advisors and organisations that advise on how businesses should operate or responsibly withdraw from conflict zones. Targeting ‘oligarchs’ certainly appears to be the focus of the rhetoric of western governments to date.

Meanwhile Mark B. Taylor of the Institute for Human Rights and Business has expressed concerns that current sanctions could appear to be rooted in nationalist ‘security’ ideology like that used to justify the ‘War on Terror’, as opposed to equivalent measures which could be rooted in humanitarian concerns.  

Boycotts in general

Boycotts are a vitally important extension of our formal democracy.

Well-targeted boycotts can exert economic pressure on some of the biggest companies to change their practices, and have seen repeated and significant successes.

They can also be a significant means of expressing moral condemnation and solidarity with workers or communities around the world.

What approach does Ethical Consumer take?

Since 2003, Russia has been on Ethical Consumer's list of oppressive regimes, and companies trading there have long received lower ethical scores in our shopping guides on the basis that doing so gives the regime funds and legitimacy.

Ethical Consumer has also maintained and published a list of ongoing consumer boycott calls in the UK since 1989. In March 2022, ongoing country boycott campaigns were in place for Israel, China, and Turkey. Russia has now been added to the list.

Because our resources are limited, we can only choose a few to actively campaign on and support. For most of them we provide the information for individuals or organisations to decide whether to join according to their own conscience.