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Saturday 3rd December
Opinion

Opinion: should you boycott car companies for where they operate?

As a man of strong principles, Paul Horrell has questions from the car industry he needs answered

Published: 30 Sep 2022
 comments

I am an inveterate and habitual boycotter. It started when I was a student and Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo released the wonderful Graceland but there was a cultural boycott of South Africa so I couldn’t buy it until Mandela walked free. For years I didn’t wear a stitch of Nike, Adidas or Puma because they were among the first to offshore production from European and US factories to sweatshops in China, and afterwards ran around the world in a low-pay non-union race to the bottom. I don’t use Google because of its data harvesting, nor eBay nor Amazon because of their tax dodging. Vote with your wallet, and email the corporate HQs to tell them why. Take it from a bleedin’ heart lefty: lost business is the only language they understand.

I encouraged everyone I knew who was going to watch the Saudi Arabian GP to switch off, and to tell the F1 authorities why they had. How many human rights abuses are your threshold? Or do sport and “politics” not mix in your worldview?

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Boycotting Russia is quite the trend at the moment. And the leadership there knows why. Western businesses are pulling out. For most car companies, it has been easy. They don’t sell many cars in Russia, and if they have factories there they’re small, unprofitable and closed with little pain.

Not so Renault. Over the past few years it has spent billions buying and revamping the vast old Lada plant in Togliatti, central Russia. It became a real winner – together with Dacia, expected to provide half the Renault Group’s profit. Even so, Renault has swallowed hard and bailed out, saying that the departure will cost it €1bn in cash flow this year, and a one-time charge for lost asset value of double that. Big numbers. And it’s still trying to work out how to do right by its 45,000 workers in Russia. Gulp.

In light of all this, I’ve been asking some car company CEOs about China. Because many of them are in there very deep, yet China has a pretty unsavoury human rights record. Tibet and Xinjiang aren’t quite Ukraine, but there are parallels. Audi’s CEO Markus Duesmann said: “We see China as our friend. We’re increasing our business there. We can influence by engaging.” Lamborghini’s Stephan Winkelmann, after a six-second pause, said: “We have to be realistic, and make a living. We have our employees and their families and a role in society in Italy.” But then he went on, “But we have to be ethical and sometimes there is a red line which cannot be crossed. It has to be evaluated for every situation.” Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares went even further, saying that he has deliberately trimmed back investment in China so it won’t hurt if he does have to withdraw for whatever reason. So Citroen people in Europe know they might suddenly have to stop selling the C5 X, made there.

A commercial reason exists to do the right thing. Investment analysts have a tool called ESG – environmental, social, governance. If companies don’t do well on that index, investors get out and share price weakens. Proof that your boycott power works.

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