Hot-button Bling: Boycott Telus Explained

Yesterday Telus tweeted in support of a federal government announcement that provinces must put a price on carbon by 2018. This prompted a call for boycotts by those that oppose the government’s position. Although the boycott itself is small, and appears likely that it will not change Telus' position on carbon pricing, it is an example of how boycotts are increasingly a result of companies’ positions on “public” matters, rather than their conduct as businesses.

What happened?

Yesterday Telus tweeted:

And, as you can see I favourited the tweet... #fulldisclosure

And, as you can see I favourited the tweet... #fulldisclosure

This Tweet accompanied a statement by Smart Prosperity supporting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that by 2018 every province would need to have a price on carbon, or else the federal government would implement one. Smart Prosperity is an organization Smart Prosperity is a movement that seeks to promote transformation toward sustainability in Canada. As the Tweet notes, Telus had been a participant in Smart Prosperity from the beginning. But so has Shell Canada, which is a major funder of the initiative. The statement itself had been signed by individuals from companies such as McKinsey, Unilever Canada, Desjardins Group, RBC, and Loblaws.

The “boycott” thus far is relatively small, with just 200 or so social media users Tweeting about it (although admittedly one of these was Ezra Levant) in the first 24h following the tweet. But this was already enough to prompt Telus to Tweet an apology:

Throughout the day the boycott campaign grew, though it has not, to my knowledge, trended on Twitter at any point. It does now have a hashtag (#boycotttelus) and a website And MP Michelle Rempel issued a statement criticizing Telus in the House of Commons, presumably because of the attention the issue has received on social media. As is common for boycotts on social media, a counter-boycott hashtag (#boycotteverything) has also developed.

What’s the context?

This, of course, isn’t the first time that a company has spurred boycott calls for its position on issues that are perceived as being “too political”.

You might remember a similar social media boycott campaign that Tim Hortons was caught up in about a year ago. The company had been airing oil sands ads on their in-house television screens. Following complaints from environmentalists the company opted to stop showing the ads. That decision then spurred boycott calls from supporters of the oil sands in Alberta, who viewed the move as unpatriotic.

Another more successful movement, #boycottEarls, pushed the Western Canadian restaurant chain to backtrack on its decision to cease buying Alberta beef.

Internationally, bigger boycott campaigns come to mind. For instance, last summer US retailer Target announced that it was changing its bathrooms policy to allow transgendered individuals to choose their preferred bathrooms. Americans opposing this new policy created the grassroots #boycottTarget movement In the quarter during which the boycott occurred, Target lost around 2.2% of same-store transactions, while sales fell 7.2% (although this might not all have been due to the boycott).

Why do companies take positions on policy issues like climate change?

Companies do sometimes take positions on policy issues or participate in groups that work to resolve policy challenges. Because oftentimes these problems cross national boundaries, they are referred to by experts as global public policy networks (GPPNs). For example, companies such as Intel and Apple have participated in policy discussions about conflict minerals with governments, NGOs, and other actors through the OECD. The reason that companies participate in these initiatives usually is that their business activities have some effect on the policy problem. Oftentimes they are responding to consumer demands through things like boycott campaigns, but other times they are seeking to influence government policy, or to carve out a niche in the market by looking like leaders in a given area that consumers care about (say, sustainability).

Climate change is an interesting issue because it is about all of the resources we use, and because it is a cross-cutting challenge that will affect many areas of our lives. So, potentially the activities of every company are relevant to combatting climate change. 

As a boycott campaign, #boycottTelus seems likely to be small and ineffectual. Telus may think twice about sharing its positions on social media, but it has not signalled willingness to retract its position on carbon pricing nor does it seem likely that it will denounce Smart Prosperity. What is interesting about the Telus boycott is the framing: this boycott campaign contributes to an ongoing debate about when it is appropriate for companies to take policy positions, especially for an issue like climate change.