Boycott Basics

What is a boycott?

A boycott is an organized, collective refusal to do business or have other dealings with a particular firm or organization. The goal is to pressure the organization to engage in a desired behavior or stop an undesired behavior. A boycott is a way for the public to hold organizations accountable for their actions.

Boycotts are often used to pressure firms to improve their labor practices, wages, and working conditions. But boycotts are also initiated for many other reasons, for example, to combat racism, sexism, or violence. They have been called to pressure corporations, but also cities, countries, or other types of organizations. Boycotts have been called by racial and ethnic groups, women’s rights activists, and religious and consumer organizations.

A consumer boycott calls on consumers to cease buying a firm’s products, to use their dollars and buying power to send a message to a company about its behavior.

Why boycott?

In the marketplace, money talks. If consumers, clients, customers, tourists, or others withhold their money, that is, refuse to purchase goods or services from a particular company or entity, it sends a strong message to management. There are few other ways that people can pressure organizations or firms to change their practices. A consumer boycott can be an important tool for justice seekers. (Other ways to exert pressure on an organization or firm include public demonstrations and, if a consumer is also a shareholder who owns stock in a company, participation in a shareholder campaign.)

Who calls a consumer boycott?

A consumer boycott of a firm is usually called by the workers who will be affected B the ones who will benefit from the change in corporate behavior but who might be adversely affected by a reduction in sales during the boycott.

For example, the Taco Bell boycott was called by the workers who pick the tomatoes used by Taco Bell. A reduction in sales in Taco Bell restaurants could reduce the need for tomatoes and farm workers labor. This could increase unemployment and/or reduce wages for farm workers. But a successful boycott could raise these workers’ pay and improve their working conditions. Since the farm workers called the boycott, they clearly believe the potential benefits outweigh any short-term disadvantages. It is probably unwise for consumers to call a boycott without the support and cooperation of the workers involved. In the best situations, the boycott is a vehicle for worker empowerment as well as a tool to pressure a corporation.

Could a boycott hurt other workers?

In the short term, a boycott could hurt workers who directly work for, or provide goods to, the targeted company. But it is also important for consumers to fully understand what happens during a boycott. Again, consider Taco Bell. If customers stop eating in Taco Bell restaurants, this does not mean that they will stop eating out. Most likely they will just shift to a different company. Reduced sales at Taco Bell will be offset by increased sales at Burger King, KFC, or other restaurants. Jobs might be lost at Taco Bell, but the other firms will be hiring to cover their increase in sales. Workers at Taco Bell may, unfortunately, need to find other jobs. But the jobs should be available at other restaurants that have seen an increase in their business.

Are boycotts effective?

Boycotts seldom work quickly, but they can be very effective. The targeted firm is impacted in many ways; the effect on sales is just one. There may be people engaged in noisy demonstrations outside the business. There may be reports in the media that question or criticize the firm. Management personnel may be asked by their friends about what is happening. Employee morale may suffer since people tend to dislike working for a firm that is being criticized by the media, churches, and their neighbors. Managers spend time on the boycott “problem,” a diversion from their core business concerns. It may be hard to recruit good employees when a company is under this type of negative pressure. All together, these effects have led many firms into negotiations.

A boycott may take many years to achieve its goals. The Mt. Olive pickle boycott lasted five years, but ended in the fall of 2004 with a contract among the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, the North Carolina Growers Association, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. It was a major victory for farm workers. Moreover, as the largest unionization in North Carolina history, it was also a victory for all NC workers. As Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, said: “When you are a worker for justice, you can’t be a sprinter, but you must be a long distance runner.”