Ethical consumers turn shopping into a form of activism. They make buying decisions based on their moral values and will buy or avoid specific products based on their social impact. Boycotts are an essential part of being an ethical consumer. In this article, we’re going to explore the relationship between boycotting and the concept of conscious consumerism.

The Rise of the Conscious Consumer

In today’s age, few shoppers have a complete understanding of where their products come from. The large corporations that supply much of our favorite items are hardly transparent. As issues like environmentalism and child exploitation make their way to the front of the public consciousness, more consumers are making the connection between capitalism and the world’s most pressing issues. This has given rise to the conscious consumer. 

The conscious consumer understands that buying a product is like casting a vote. When you purchase a product, you are effectively agreeing with that company’s values and are voting for them to stay in business. Conscious consumers refuse to vote for companies that engage in unethical behavior and choose to instead vote for companies that provide ethical products with transparent origins. 

Read more: What does it mean to “vote with your wallet?” 

Why Boycott?

When a company is exposed as having engaged in unethical practices, consumers may engage in a boycott. This is when concerned parties call for the general public to abstain from doing business with a particular organization. The goal is to cause a financial loss and force the company to take on more ethical practices. Boycotts may be carried out for several reasons, including:

  • Causing environmental harm
  • Harsh treatment of workers
  • Child exploitation
  • Using dangerous ingredients
  • Animal cruelty/testing
  • Controversial brand image

Depending on the effectiveness of a boycott, they can be short-lived, or they can last indefinitely. An effective boycott may force a company to change its practices almost instantly, especially if its revenue stream is at stake. Long-term boycotts against particularly stubborn organizations can become normalized actions and can be absorbed into the general culture of certain worldviews.

Successful Boycotts

While many boycotts have faded into oblivion, several boycotts have had a long-lasting impact on society. Successful boycotts are widespread and not only involve massive groups of consumers, but specifically, a large portion of an organization’s target demographic. There are a few characteristics that are inherent in most successful boycotts:

  • Credible organization
  • Clear and concise message with realistic goals
  • Maintain engagement through several platforms
  • Impact on target company wider than revenue 

It’s been proven that the most successful boycotts are those that garner more media attention, even if the effect on the company’s revenue stream is limited. A recent study examined 144 boycotts over a ten-year period and found a positive correlation between a company’s propensity to concede to a boycott and the amount of media attention the boycott received. In other words, the possibility of reputational damage poses more of a threat than financial loss.

A few successful boycotts are detailed below.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white man while riding the bus. She was arrested and fined $14 (equivalent to $135 today). Parks was a member of the NAACP, and Black leaders from all over the city called for a boycott of city buses. At the time, Black riders made up about 75% of the ridership in Montgomery. 

The boycott lasted over a year and nearly pushed the bus company toward bankruptcy. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the city’s desegregation laws were unconstitutional. After the boycott was lifted, the increased community activism helped spur the Civil Rights movement and catapulted Martin Luther King’s career as an activist. 

North Carolina Boycott

In 2016, North Carolina legislators passed a bill that allowed for broader discrimination of the LGBTQ community, and most famously, restricted the use of public toilets for Trans people. The law, commonly known as the “Bathroom Bill,” garnered widespread outrage, and LGBTQ advocates called for a boycott of the state of North Carolina. 

A long list of organizations, businesses, and institutions participated. Seven states, thirty counties, and twenty-nine cities, including Washington DC, banned their employees from traveling to North Carolina on business. Athletic and university organizations like the NCAA canceled planned events and moved them to other states. Entertainment and film companies canceled filming and boycotted and further endeavors in North Carolina until the bill was repealed. 

After losing over $3 billion in revenue, North Carolina lawmakers repealed the bill in 2017.

Majorie Stoneman Douglas NRA Boycott

In 2018, Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was the scene of a deadly mass shooting that killed 17 people and injured several others, becoming the deadliest school shooting in US history. In the aftermath of the tragedy, several anti-gun activists, joined by survivors of the shooting, called for a boycott of the NRA. The goal was to force the pro-gun lobby to push for stricter gun control measures.

At first, the boycott wasn’t picking up enough steam. So the activists turned to social media and called for an additional boycott of the state of Florida, where legislators refused to pass gun control measures. The movement gained momentum, and several organizations cut ties with the NRA, including airlines, car rental companies, and banks. Afterward, retailers placed heavier restrictions on gun purchases, such as raising the age limit. Some retailers stopped selling high-powered rifles and accessories altogether.

Starting a Boycott

Bringing awareness to the unethical practices of a company is a noble cause, but it can be a difficult task. Starting and maintaining a successful boycott takes time, effort, and planning. Strong social skills and the ability to network are also critical. 

Planning: Set Objectives and Goals

Do your research into successful boycotts, both in the past and present. Create a set of goals for the action, including recruiting like-minded people for a definitive working group. Make a list of social networks, media outlets, and activist organizations that you can potentially leverage. You should also make a list of reasonable demands for the company to adhere to. 

Get Your Facts Straight

Credibility is a huge factor in getting the public on your side. How reliable are your claims? Do you have solid evidence back by photos, former employees, or scientific research? Can the company successfully deflect your claims? Make sure you have a solid block of evidence to support your stance and create a plan of action in the case the company tries to discredit your organization.

Spread the Word

Once you have a solid foundation, it’s time to act and spread the word. Use several platforms, including flyers, websites, and social media, to bring attention to your cause. Send a letter to the company via snail mail, e-mail, or social media to inform them of your intentions and demands. Make connections with other activist groups who are likely to support your cause. If you want to reach a wider audience, you can even reach out to major media outlets.

Keep it Up!

A successful boycott requires persistence, especially if you’re dealing with a large, stubborn corporation that refuses to change. But remember, as we said above, it’s the reputational damage, not the financial loss, that ultimately forces companies to cave in. Keep applying pressure, as your message will constantly find new audiences and supporters

Build Community

Whether the boycott succeeds or fails, what’s important is the community action oriented around the cause. You may have sparked a new wave of activists or created a new group of ethical consumers. If your boycott succeeds, celebrate and advertise your victory. Use it as a recruiting tool for your new affinity group, and keep the momentum going towards the next action. If the boycott fails to attract enough attention, then continue to raise awareness about the company’s unethical practices as you decide what issue to focus on next.

Key Takeaways

Boycotts are an integral part of consumer activism. In the age of capitalism, voting with your wallet can have greater repercussions than voting at the ballot box. Buying a company’s products means you implicitly agree with the brand’s actions and values, even if you don’t explicitly agree with their ethics. 

  • When a company is found to be engaging in highly unethical practices, consumers and activist groups may call for a boycott.
  • Boycotts are when the general public is urged to abstain from buying a company’s products. 
  • While the goal is to cause a financial loss, the most successful boycotts force change by causing reputational damage. 
  • Boycotts are tough endeavors, requiring persistence and determination.