Op-Ed: My lonely boycott hasn’t hurt In-N-Out Burger, but our small decisions do add up
In-N-Out Burger is the most popular fast-food restaurant in California, according to a data-tracking site.
Maybe it’s a great burger, and maybe that’s why it’s so popular. I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never had one. For that matter, neither had my grown daughter, for the first 12 years of her life, because I refused to sign her up for the In-N-Out Burger truck that showed up at her elementary school on Fridays to give parents a break from packing lunch.
Not me. The other kids got burgers and fries, but my daughter got pasta and an apple. It made her feel left out, which made me feel bad, and yet I did not fold.
I was a one-woman boycott. In-N-Out prints Bible verses on its packaging and is proud of its conservative politics, so I had long since decided to vote with my wallet, knowing full well that my actions had no appreciable impact on the chain’s bottom line. The company did just fine without me, as it still does, as it has for decades.
This is an imperfect effort at best, because my life, like so many others’, is marked by retail compromise. If I get a coffee at Blue Bottle, I’ve supported its majority owner, Nestle, itself a boycott target in the 1970s for pushing baby formula in poor countries that lacked enough clean water to mix it properly, to families that over-diluted a product they could not afford at the correct strength. Home Depot was a leading corporate donor to election denier candidates, but it is also the nearest such business to where I live, so the odds are good I’d go there if I had a pressing home repair challenge.
But I try to do the right thing, as I define it, which raises the obvious question: If my actions don’t make a dent, financially, and if I have supported other dubious entities (sometimes without knowing it), why bother avoiding In-N-Out? I could order a Double-Double burger, and the world would just keep spinning.
I tried, once, just to see how it would feel. There’s an In-N-Out nearby, so I drove over, pulled into the parking lot, and watched happy people place their orders. I told myself that this spending would be research, to give myself an ethical side door.
And then I drove home, burger-less, mindful of something Laurie David, a producer of the Oscar-winning climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” said back in 2006. I’m paraphrasing from an interview she did, but I know I have the gist right. The reporter wondered whether the exhaustive and exhausting list of things we needed to change would overwhelm even the most well-intentioned among us. Faced with so much we ought to do, would we seize up and fail to do anything at all?
She replied that even the smallest change is progress. If we used fewer plastic storage bags but continued to put food scraps in the garbage, it was still progress. If we composted but kept driving a gas guzzler, progress. If everyone did as much as they possibly could, the aggregate would be progress indeed.
Our moral bank accounts do matter. I avoid In-N-Out, and a few other places, so I can rest easy with my own personal ledger.
And speaking of the Oscars... As prognosticators start to handicap this year’s awards race, I’m mindful that there’s a bigger, fancier version of my kid’s grade-school burger truck at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party every year, and the next day’s news feed is full of photos of celebrities in their party clothes, about to tuck into an In-N-Out. In the days preceding the awards ceremony, they were preoccupied with fitting into that gown or cummerbund, but after the show, they can cut loose with a nice ground-beef patty, and even some fries. It’s as much of a tradition, of late, as the overlong acceptance speech.
The ranks of these celebrities include people who are on record, loudly and publicly, for their progressive views, who support causes that are the antithesis of In-N-Out’s alignment with anti-vaccine, anti-LGBTQ politics. So every year I wonder: Are they truly unaware of that agenda, and would they be distraught if they knew that they were providing priceless free advertising to such a company?
Or do they not care, because the post-ceremony burger gets them their own priceless free advertising, and they assume a single burger in the hands of one celebrity can’t possibly make that much of a difference?
I hope it’s ignorance, because maybe they’d ditch the burger if they knew. If it’s “Who cares,” I get it, up to a point. It’s hard to worry about something as small as a meal when so many much larger issues vie for our attention and energy. Then again, our culture these days is all about calling out what we perceive as bad behavior. I don’t understand how some businesses escape unscathed.
Besides, Los Angeles is a hopeful food extravaganza right now, as restaurant people who weathered the worst years of the pandemic reinvent themselves with pop-ups, food trucks, street stalls, night markets, new brick-and-mortar operations. There are plenty of places to grab a bite — and honestly, Oscar-goers, somebody’s going to take your photograph no matter where you are.
Karen Stabiner is the author of “Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream.”
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