Why the Boycott Isn’t Working

By Linsey Knerl on 8 April 2008 5 comments

With a little self-examination, it is easy to align ourselves to values and social morals that keep us feeling comfortable and productive. And so we continue to live our lives in ways that uphold those values: we obey the law, act kind towards one another, and make small but positive changes towards a better future for us and our children. Why is it then, that we feel compelled to boycott companies that don’t share those values. And what is it about the boycott that just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

We are too informed. Back when boycott was effective, we were dependent on those we trusted to convey the message to us via mail, television, or word-of-mouth. You would never see an email urging friends and family to “boycott” the Super Bowl due to a tasteless ad or to quit buying gas on a particular day in protest of rising gas prices. Because information was slow to come, it had to be deliberate, accurate, and pretty darn important. For this reason, boycotts were limited to those issues of the utmost priority. Now everyone knows everything about every company and every brand. (If you don’t believe me, just check out the boycott section on Snopes.) Being fickle took a lot out of the boycott.

We are too concerned. Civil rights were on the minds of everyone back in Rosa Park’s day. It was easy to see how a boycott of the bus system would affect everyone, participating or not. Now there are too many issues to really stand behind any one virtue. Do we boycott the wearing of leather? How about corporate greed? Can we boycott companies that practice sexual discrimination? Do we avoid purchasing from stores that sell cheap lead-filled toys? Take your pick of social agendas, and for each one you pledge yourself to, there will be 100 more clamoring for your attention. We are just spreading ourselves way too thin.

People get hurt. If a large global company were to suddenly see a loss of millions of dollars, who would suffer that loss? I am guessing not the higher-ups making the immoral decisions, but more than likely the every day workers who are just trying to make a living for their family. We have already seen jobs sent overseas in hopes of achieving a higher profit margin. Do you think this practice would increase or decrease in light of an unprofitable fiscal quarter due to a boycott? Even in the most financially ill corporations, some CEO’s will feel justified in giving themselves raises -- even when factory lines are being cut by deep numbers. Many of us just aren’t willing to subject anyone to the carnage that a successful boycott could leave behind.

Companies are complicated. In order to pull-off a proper boycott, you really need to know your corporate genealogy. If you boycott Coca-cola, for instance, you would need to know all of its subsidiaries, service offerings, and umbrella brands and partnerships. In some larger companies, this is very difficult to do. In many, it is almost impossible to separate the entanglement that comes when companies expand and join forces with other great global companies. In order to be effective, however, it must be effectively done.

Am I suggesting that boycotts never be done? Of course not. One of the things that I love about our capitalistic country is that we can cast a vote with each dollar we spend. For some of us, it is more of a matter of picking our battles and making the big purchases (a car or house, for instance) really count. Others are content researching and tracking every purchase made to be sure that it falls in line with their philosophy of spending and morality.

As technology continues to bring massive amounts of free information in front of every man, woman, and child, we just may see an evolution of the boycott, and hopefully, a method of protest that will work. In the meantime, there are sites like KarmaBanque taking an interesting twist on the tradition.  Others will find relief in the arms of class-action lawsuits, new legislation, and continuing to educate the world.


Just because the boycott rarely works, doesn’t mean we can’t try.

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Guest's picture

"Take your pick of social agendas, and for each one you pledge yourself to, there will be 100 more clamoring for your attention. We are just spreading ourselves way too thin."

This is a great point, and something I've struggled with for a while. Do I buy fair trade or vegan or organic or local? We're supposed to speak with our pocketbooks, but that's hard to do when the most socially responsible purchases are frequently the most expensive.

I suppose the answer, if there is one, is to do what we can with our pocketbooks and in our communities. The rest is out of our hands.

Guest's picture

People have also lost track of what a boycott actually is and what makes it effective.

e.g. Just not buying gas on a particular day doesn't make an impact because you're still buying the same amount of gas overall -- just on a different day. If you wanted to actually take money away from the oil company, you'd have to use less of their product.

Linsey Knerl's picture

A shuffling of our shopping dates isn't the same as a boycott.  We need to be prepared to completely abstain (i.e. sacrifice) from a number of comforts in order to truly send the message that a traditional boycott requires.  I am beginning to think that changing the world will come in the form of kindness, and I am very excited by some of the ideas that both Julie and Paul mentioned in their articles.


Maggie Wells's picture

Boycotts can work in a different way. We do pick and choose our choices. For example, I boycott Starbucks when I'm in San Francisco. With all the wonderful coffee places there, it's just not necessary to patronize a giant faceless corporation. But when I'm in the sticks and the nearest coffee tastes like old grounds and chalk, I do go to Starbucks.

I grew up in a boycott family that followed the UFW boycotts. I boycott Wal-Mart (or Evil as we call it here). In the 80s I boycotted all the companies supporting apartheid by investing in South Africa. I do the same for Myanmar now.

It's a clean conscious thing. Part of walking lightly on the earth. Was I part of the problem today or part of the solution? That's the way I look at it. It's not about how effective it is monetarily. It's about saving your own soul. 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

A boycott is not an individual shopping decision - it's a collective action by a large group of people. It costs money, because you have to find alternatives.

When they boycotted the buses, they had to manage carpools to keep people off the bus. Those carpools cost money. They had to figure out their impact, and if it was working, tell the boycotters -- it's war, and they needed to know if they were winning. They had pickets, to inform people of the boycott.

The inconvenience of the boycott is directly related to its impact. The viability of a business usually hinges on how well it fulfills its niche, by lowering costs to, and increasing the satisfaction of, its customers. The business becomes nearly indispensible to the customer. When you can convince these customers to bear extra burdens, and suffer using another business, then, you're going to have a real impact.

The Southern Cal supermarket strikes of 2003 were very inconvenient, but effective. Hundreds of thousands of sympathetic people suffered, went along with the boycott, and cost the supermarkets billions of dollars. The contract they got back then wasn't that good -- but the one they got recently is pretty close to pre-strike levels, and across the country, I think it's been easier for their union to negotiate. That inconvenient boycott has gained millions of dollars for supermarket workers. This is money that gets spent on consumer goods, and invested in families.

If the people hadn't gone along with that boycott, we'd have more jobs in the supermarket that pay $7.50 an hour, and more turnover because of the crappy wages. Last week, I overheard a cashier discussing with a bagger about how to invest the $600 stimulus check in their retirement fund. That's proof to me that boycotts work!