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When you should boycott a bad business

In the past couple of months, I’ve been privileged to interview a number of high-profile people about different aspects of global leadership. Some of these interviews took me to London, which I love visiting, but hated living there. (I couldn’t stand the long, dark months from about October to May.)

But seeing London as a tourist is fabulous. For the past 20-odd years one of my favourite things to do on a visit was to wander around Lillywhites in Piccadilly – an old-school sports shop with five floors of sports gear. It’s the place where you can spend hours messing about with snooker tables, air hockey tables, basketball hoops and football (soccer!) stuff. It’s a toy shop for big kids who love sport. Or at least it was.

These days it’s owned by Sports Direct. And because of this, for the first time on a London visit, I went nowhere near the place. Sports Direct has built its “success” on an appalling management and leadership practice. Think zero-hours contracts, body searches of staff following shifts, six strikes and you’re out for employee “offences” such as excessive talking and spending too long in the toilet, payment beneath the legal minimum wage and refusal to honour sick pay.

Of course, my little boycott of Sports Direct’s flagship London store made no difference at all to the company. They will continue to pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. But in one important sense my boycott does matter. In situations like this, it’s all I have.

We’re able to make a personal choice about the products and services we do and don’t buy, and we make those choices based on the principles that we hold as sound managers and leaders. In an increasingly connected world, we are able to research the things that we buy, the causes we support and the companies we buy from.

In India recently, I interviewed Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi about global leadership. He has a very refreshing perspective on leadership and on consumers’ ability to have an impact globally. His view is this: change starts with you and with me.

He told me the story of a global clothing brand that was relying on child labour to make its products. By shining a light on this practice and by taking a stand with consumers at a grassroots level, his organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan (the Save the Children Movement) was able to influence the global attitude to child labour, and push reforms through the United Nation’s International Labour Organization.

The message from Kailash was clear – we must never underestimate our power as consumers and as leaders. We are all citizens of an increasingly interconnected world. Leadership isn’t simply a local issue, it’s truly global.


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