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Learn about boycotts as tools for social change, including uses of boycotts in the past, conditions favoring a boycott, and how to organize and carry out a successful one.


Black-and-white image of a person's hand out in front of their face as if to stay "stop!"

We live in a world that is increasingly corporate. Fears of Big Brother are being replaced by the reality of Big Business; all too often, the only thing that seems to matter is how much money is made. Taking care of anything else--such as human rights, animal rights, or the environment--is often a secondary concern at best.
Fortunately, consumers and activists do have the means to change policies and practices they disagree with. One of the most powerful tools for change is the boycott.
Boycotting a person or an organization isn't a new idea. Throughout much of the past century, boycotts have been a popular, effective way to bring about changes to improve our world. Think about the following examples:
  • A tired Black woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat near the front of the bus to a white man. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which deprived the bus company of 65% of its income and led to the landmark decision by the Supreme Court that bus segregation is unconstitutional.
  • Cesar Chavez led the Farmworkers' Boycotts on California grapes in the 1960s and 70s, forcing land owners to improve working conditions for their employees.
  • Boycotts on tuna that wasn't "dolphin safe" in the 1980s led all major sellers of canned tuna to change their tune.
Boycotts work because so many people are willing to take part in them. According to an article in Newsweek (see Resources), it's estimated that almost twenty percent of Americans take part in boycotts for something (or somethings) they believe in. What's more, people who take part in boycotts are usually people with a lot of formal education. From a business leader's point of view, that means people with deep pockets. And you can bet that if there's one thing business leaders pay attention to, it's deep pockets.

What is a boycott?

Quite simply, a boycott is an effort to convince a large number of consumers not to do business with a particular person or business. Occasionally, a boycott of a country may occur, when another country refuses to engage in trade.
A boycott does two primary things. First, it creates a lot of negative publicity against the organization being boycotted. Second, as a result of this negative publicity, it threatens to the organization's bottom line--its profits.
A successful boycott will convince a person or corporation to change certain policies.
Example: A successful boycott
In the 1970s, the Nestle Corporation attracted world-wide criticism for its practice of selling infant formula in underdeveloped nations. This practice was responsible for the deaths of many, many children. Instead of feeding babies breast milk, mothers would use the formula from Nestle. Unfortunately, the water used to mix with the formula wasn't always clean, so it caused many infections. Additionally, many mothers didn't have enough money to buy the proper amount of the formula for their children, and would give them formula that had been significantly watered down. These two factors often led to malnourishment and to death.
Appalled by these practices, consumers around the world began to boycott Nestle in 1974. After ten years, the corporation relented and agreed to change their practice of marketing formula to mothers in the developing world. A sobering side note to this victory, however, is that the company has not lived up to its promises. The boycott has been reintroduced in the past few years.
There are two kinds of boycotts: primary and secondary boycotts. A primary boycott is a decision not to buy goods or services produced by a certain company whose policies you disagree with. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has asked its members to boycott the Walt Disney Company because Disney has adopted supportive policies towards its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees. Generally, when people talk about a boycott, they mean a primary boycott.
A secondary boycott is directed at a third party. That is, you refuse to purchase anything from someone who sells products made by the company you are boycotting. For example, in the early and mid 1990s, there was a boycott against Nike. Its goal was to put an end to the human rights violations that were happening in Nike's facility in Indonesia. That's still a primary boycott, as we discussed above.
However, if people who were angry with Nike boycotted a store, such as the Foot Locker, that carries Nike shoes, that would be a secondary boycott. Secondary boycotts are illegal under U.S. labor laws.
Finally, when a boycott is instituted against an employer by stopping or slowing work by employees, it is called a strike.
A bit of history:
The word boycott first appeared in the late 19th century, when Irish tenants became furious at the ruthless rent-collection policies of an English land agent, Captain Charles Boycott. The angry tenants refused to work the lands and ostracized Boycott both economically and socially.

Why organize a boycott?

Although many boycotts are usually organized in the same way, they may be used for different reasons, in search of different ends. Some of the most common uses are:
  • As an end in itself. Sometimes, a group may organize a boycott without really expecting the organization being boycotted to make any changes. In this case, the group members may feel that making their point--expressing their disapproval with the company--may justify the time and effort a boycott takes. A boycott may be conducted, quite simply, as a publicity stunt. For example, an environmental group may want to go on record as being against the practices of a certain company.
Another way a boycott can be used as an end in itself is when a group wants people to stop purchasing a certain product. Members of the group may not necessarily be angry at a given company; they simply want consumers to stop buying something. The product, not the people behind it, is the focus of this type of boycott. For example, a group might ask parents to stop buying disposable diapers. Instead of asking all of the companies that make disposable diapers to stop making them (not a very likely scenario), the group would be asking for consumers to change their practices.
This use of a boycott as an end in itself is especially common in a case of David vs. Goliath--that is, when the group organizing the boycott feels they may be able to make a small difference, but they probably won't be able to change the policies of a much more powerful corporation.
  • To destroy an individual or corporation. Boycotts can also have a much deadlier goal--to force a corporation or individual out of business. While boycotts are rarely used this way, this can be the organizers' ultimate goal.
  • As a bargaining chip. The most common use of a boycott is found between these two extremes. A group uses a boycott to convince an individual, company, or country to change certain practices they disagree with. In this scenario, a boycott is used as a tool to force policy changes. Boycotts might ask the company to develop more environmentally-friendly containers for their products; to force them to treat employees better; or to do a variety of other things.

Advantages of a boycott

The biggest advantage of a boycott is, of course, the success it can have in forcing an individual or business to change policies your organization wants to see changed.
Why can boycotts be so effective? Basically, because a boycott is an economic tool--and it's being used against those who are accustomed to holding the economic cards. Dollars and cents is the language for-profit corporations understand best; a boycott speaks to them in their terms (even if they don't want to hear the message!). In fact, a nationwide survey conducted in 1991 found that business leaders considered boycotts more effective than letter writing campaigns, lobbying, or even class action suits in convincing them to modify their practices. (See Mousy Magazine in Resources.)
There are other advantages to using a boycott that aren't so obvious. While none of these reasons is probably enough to start a boycott, they are important benefits to be aware of.
  • Boycotts let people put their money where their values are. Boycotts offer people in the community a way to stand up for what they believe in. If the boycott is well organized, it allows people to stand up for their beliefs in a way that is easy and relatively painless. In short--a boycott encourages civic responsibility for community members.
  • Boycotts bring a lot of attention to you and your cause. When people begin boycotts, others take notice. A boycott is an event that is usually considered worthy of being reported on by the local media. In the spotlight a boycott brings, you have a good place to stand and explain your group and its position to everyone in the community.
  • Finally, other businesses will learn that negotiation with you is preferable to risking a boycott.

When should you organize a boycott?

Boycotts are, in a very real sense, an act of war. You are attacking the "enemy" --where it is most vulnerable. And so, we recommend that you organize a boycott as a last resort--when gentler steps just won't work. Whether you are fighting a local grocery store or a multinational corporation, trying to work together to find common ground should be your first step.
Sometimes, however, that doesn't work. It's not always possible to convince the other guys to see things your way, or even to compromise, without pulling out all the stops. In cases like these where nothing else seems to work, your organization may consider organizing a boycott.
If you are considering a boycott, be sure that you've looked at all the angles. Answering the following questions can help you decide if the time is right to go to battle.
  • Could a boycott alienate anyone that has supported your organization and therefore threaten your own economic interests? For example, perhaps your group wants to boycott a small local company that mistreats its workers, who are mostly recent immigrants. However, a larger area corporation--one that has supported your group extensively in the past--is a silent partner with the smaller group. If you go ahead with the boycott, your risk angering the group that has supported you, and being cut off from further funding. If so, then what? Does your organization want to go through with the boycott; find other, less aggressive ways of addressing the problem; or fight a different battle all together?
  • Is there any possibility that an organization or business you wish to boycott might have legal recourse for damages resulting from boycott action? Could your organization be sued? Primary boycotts are legal in the United States and Canada, as well as in many other parts of the world. Still, we recommend sitting down with a lawyer and being certain you understand the possible consequences of this action.
  • Does your organization have the time and resources it will take to undertake a boycott? A boycott takes a lot of time and energy--resources that could be spent on other efforts, other goals. And boycotts don't succeed overnight--most take years to be successful. Some never are. Are you willing to put all of that effort into it?
There probably aren't any easy answers to these questions--and alone, answers to any one of these questions may not mean a definite decision to boycott or not to boycott the organization. But by looking at the whole picture, your organization should be able to determine whether or not you want to begin a boycott right now.

How do you organize a boycott?

If you've thought about the advantages and difficulties we talked about above, and made a measured decision to go through with a boycott, then let's go! The steps below give an overview of what you'll need to do to conduct a successful boycott.


Have goals that are clear and realistic.

As we discussed earlier in this section, there are generally three reasons a group might decide to hold a boycott: as an end to itself, to bring about specific changes, or to put a person or company out of business. What does your group hope to accomplish? Also, think about what (if anything) your group might be willing to give up or to compromise on. For example, you might want a company to increase the number of women and minorities in management positions by 100%, but would be willing to settle for a smaller number.
Alternatively, you might have one long-term goal, but be willing to settle for something smaller, especially in the short-term. For example, a small city-wide effort might have the ultimate goal of forcing a national corporation to stop packaging anything using polyvinyl chloride, the second best-selling plastic that makes recycling much more difficult. However, you may also have smaller goals that you believe the group has a better chance of obtaining. You might have the goal of educating the public about what PVC is, the need for recycling, and what your organization does. Even if the large corporation does not change all of its policies because of your boycott, you might consider your efforts a success.
Whatever your goal, you need to have a good understanding of what makes a boycott effective. According to Cesar Chavez, who led the highly successful boycotts against California grape growers in the 1960s and 1970s, you need to convince approximately five percent of consumers to boycott an organization to make a financial impact. If you can convince ten percent of consumers, the effect on a business is devastating.
Sometimes, however, that's not necessary. Just the idea of a boycott is very threatening to organizations, especially if it is being organized by an organization that is seen as capable of pulling it off. This threat of a loss in business can be enough to bring business leaders to the table to negotiate.

Do your research.

If you are going to boycott an organization, you should know all about that organization--who they are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. You should be prepared to answer tough questions of all shapes and sizes, whether they come from scientists or soccer moms.Be sure your facts are solid. Generally speaking, people who care enough to participate in social action are thinking people. They want to look carefully at a situation and make a measured decision about what should happen. While emotional appeals can be very strong, they should always be undergirded with facts and logic.
Also, be sure that your facts are supported by trustworthy, accepted resources. For example, a liberal may be less than excited about the newest findings reported in The National Review ; a staunch Republican may scoff at your report from Mother Jones.

  • Know everyone you want to boycott. This point is especially important if you are boycotting a very large corporation. That's because larger groups often own many smaller companies. For example, in the case of Nestle, they are the parent organization of a huge number of subsidiaries. If you wanted to take part in the boycott against Nestlé, you would want to know all of the brands and products--from Stouffer's to Libby's to Friskies to Perrier--that you would need to ask people not to buy.
  • Partner with other groups who share your point of view. While this step is important for local boycotts, it's essential in order for a boycott of a huge corporation to succeed. Whether your boycott is against a local grocer or a multinational corporation, the more people who are involved in the boycott, the more likely it is to be effective. It makes sense to partner with groups who have a lot of people who listen to them.

There are already many lines of communication open throughout our communities-- through clubs, organizations, churches, et cetera. Use them. Think how much more powerful the boycott could be if four or five or fifty groups like yours asked all of their members to join in the boycott. Meet with groups who can and will put out a call in their monthly newsletter, talk about it at their board meetings, or discuss it in their church. The lesson here? Don't overlook the power of collaboration

  • Let the perpetrators know what you intend to do. When you've done your research, found partners, and are ready to roll, it makes sense for you to start by telling the company what you are going to do. This threat is sometimes (though rarely) all you need to do. When the company sees you are absolutely serious about boycotting them, they may decide to come to the table and work with you.

The best way to inform the organization you wish to boycott is through a letter, either mailed or faxed to the group's office. Phone calls may not get returned, and e-mail may not be taken as seriously. Letters can get passed around the board room, and there is less room for misinterpretation than a report of a phone call.

When you are writing the letter, keep these tips in mind:

  • The letter should be clear and professional in tone. Don't overtly threaten the organization, but at the same time, be clear about what you are going to do and what the likely consequences of that action will be.
  • The letter should be written on agency letterhead. This could be that of the group actually organizing the boycott, or of the most powerful or best known person or organization taking part in the boycott. But the overall effect should be to let the people who you are going to boycott know that your efforts have weight.
  • If several groups are collaborating on the boycott, the letter should include that information.
    • The letter should clearly state:
      • Why the boycott is taking place;
      • What you plan to accomplish by the boycott; and
      • When you intend to officially begin the boycott. You might consider giving the group two weeks to respond before the official start. However, be careful not to give into "delay" tactics, where the company continues meeting with you to try to stall your efforts indefinitely.
  • The letter should be signed by the head of the group or groups organizing the boycott.
  • Check and recheck the letter for spelling or grammatical errors.
  • Send the letter to the CEO or company president and/or to the Chair of the Board of Directors, or their equivalents (different businesses, organizations, and agencies may use different titles for those offices.) . In any case, you will always want to send the letter to the CEO or president. For larger groups, you may want to cc the letter to the person in charge of complaints/customer relations, and to whoever is in charge of the particular grievance you have against the organization. For example, if you want personnel policies to change, send the letter to the director of personnel as well. You might also want to send the letter to members of the press, as a "heads up," but don't expect any direct press at this point.
  • Let everyone else know that you are organizing a boycott, that you want them to be part of it, and why they should do so. When you have let the organization you plan to boycott know what's going on without receiving a positive response (that is, an invitation to negotiate), it's time to let everyone else in on your plans.
    • Let your friends and colleagues know. If they don't see the point of the boycott, you will probably have a hard time convincing others.
    • Hold a press conference to let everyone know what you are doing, and that you want them to join.

When planning a press conference, you'll want to understand when and how to approach the media and develop a strong visual component for your campaign.

When you are letting people know what you are doing, it is equally important to explain why it's happening.

This may be the most important bit. Not only do people need to know the boycott is going on, they need to know why it is worth supporting.

And so, make sure your education efforts...

  • Give solid reasons why consumers should take part in the boycott.
  • Are updated as new information becomes available. If new information does come out -- on the company being boycotted, on the results of what you're doing--the organization responsible for the boycott should get that information out to everyone.
  • Remain simple enough to be easily understood. If you want to convince many people, information has to be simple enough that people don't need advanced degrees to understand what is going on. Of course, the people organizing the boycott should understand all of the technicalities involved in the issue--as we said above, be ready for hard questions. However, you can't expect most people on the street to spend that much time trying to understand it.

Offer alternatives to what you are boycotting.

If someone told you to boycott water, it probably wouldn't make any difference to you why you should boycott it--you simply wouldn't do it. No matter how compelling the reasons--child labor, animal rights, a clean environment--the fact is, you need to drink. It wouldn't work.
Although the different things that a group might choose to boycott aren't as necessary as that water, the point should be clear--if you are boycotting something people are used to having, make sure you can give them an alternative they like. The simple fact is, most people want to do the right thing--but they don't want to go out of their way to do it.
Make boycotting easy for them. If you are asking people to boycott a certain company's products, suggest similar products for a similar (or lower) price. If you are boycotting a store, suggest other nearby stores, and talk about what is best about them. (This tactic could win those stores over as friends for your boycott as well!)
Be careful, however, to research the companies that you are suggesting as alternatives. If they are committing the same sins that you want the boycotted company to correct (or if they're committing even worse crimes), your boycott could do more harm than good.

Praise publicly.

If the corporations you are boycotting make some changes, let people know. A successful boycott shovels a huge amount of negative publicity on a company. If they do cave in, thank them publicly. Now isn't the time to hold a grudge. Let everyone know what a swell neighbor they now are, and how pleased your group is to support their efforts to clean up the environment or whatever they've agreed to do. Not only is this good sportsmanship, it's good publicity for your organization and your cause. If possible, you might even hold a press conference to thank them and ask that everyone now starts to buy their products.

Be relentless.

Keep at it. A boycott is not a short-term scheme. Especially when you're going up against a larger organization, it may take years and years before you achieve results. Be prepared for this, and be sure to celebrate small landmarks along the way.
One good sign is if you are encountering resistance. If you get a lot of flak from the organization you are trying to change, this is a sign your boycott is successful, and that your opponent is running scared.
Although it's important to keep at a boycott, it's also important to remember that sometimes a boycott doesn't work. At some point, you may want to cut your losses and pack it in. This will be a different point for every group--yours will need to decide what is most important, and when enough's enough.

Another option: Holding a "buycott"

A boycott is a well-known way to change things you don't like. But how about when things are going well? What about the companies who are developing policies that you do like? A company may make steps to stop polluting a local river; a restaurant in town may become completely "smoke-free." Organizations that take steps you believe in deserve your support. And just as a boycott is the ultimate economic tool to use against an organization, a "buycott" can be a powerful boost for local businesses. By a buycott, we mean becoming a careful consumer, and buying from companies whose policies you agree with. Then, a buycott goes a step further--as in a boycott, you try to convince other people to do business with that organization as well.

In Summary

It's easy to feel that we are powerless to change anything in our society. That's one of the reasons that a boycott can be such a strong tool--it gives us the power to live out our ideals, and--if the boycott is well-run--to really change things. The Boycott Action News reminds us:
"But it doesn't make any difference what I do, I'm just one person," the rationalizers say. It makes all the difference in the world. Live your life as though it matters, and it will matter. You do have power, as a consumer. In fact, in the times we live in, consumer action is at least as powerful as political action. Yes, register and vote, but also, be a wise consumer, for in changing your thinking, and then your actions, you are changing the world."

Online  Resource

Boycott Organizer's Guide is an excellent resource for planning a boycott and deciding who to target with the boycott. 

How to Organize a Boycott offers tips from

The Quick Start Guide to boycotts provides information specific to starting a consumer boycott.

On Boycotts Organized through the Internet is a study published by Paul Sergius Koku.  In the article, he analyzes use of the internet in boycott organization.

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Avner, M., & Smucker, B. (2002). The lobbying and advocacy handbook for nonprofit organizations: Shaping public policy at the state and local level. Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. This book offers a clear step-by-step guide to implementing a successful advocacy program at both the state and local levels.

Biklen, D. (1983). Community organizing: Theory and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., Max, S.(1996). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN: Seven Locks Press.

Kahn, S. (1982). Organizing. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Miller, A. (1992, July). Do Boycotts Work? Newsweek, 58-61.

Shragge, E. (2013). Activism and Social Change: Lessons for Community Organizing. University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division; 2nd Edition. This book discusses community organizing in a post-9/11 context, and includes a discussion of national and transnational organizing efforts.

Sen, R. (2003). Stir it up: Lessons in community organizing and advocacy. Jossey-Bass; 1st Edition. In this book, Sen goes step-by-step through the process of building and mobilizing a community and implementing key strategies to affect social change.  Using case studies to illustrate advocacy practices, Sen provides tools to help groups tailor his model for their own organizational needs.

Milkman, R. J., & Narro, V. (2010). Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy. ILR Press. Working for Justice provides eleven case studies of recent low-wage worker organizing campaigns in Los Angeles.  This information was acquired through interviews, access to documents, and participant observation.