Protest! Ethical Consumer reports there are currently 44 active boycotts based in the UK.

Last week, a group of celebrities took part in an Instagram and Facebook “freeze” to protest fake news and online hate. Boycotting is not a new idea — but how does it actually work?

  • What is a boycott?

    A boycott is a kind of non-violent protest. The name comes from a demonstration in 19th-century Ireland. Captain Charles Boycott was a land agent who refused to lower tenants’ rent so that they could pay it. They fought back. Boycott’s employees stopped working, local businesses rejected his money and the postman refused to deliver his letters. Captain Boycott was eventually forced to move away.

    Today, the name is used to describe a situation where protesters refuse to use a service, buy a product – or deal with a person, organisation or country – to bring about change.

  • Who organises them?

    Anyone can call a boycott merely by refusing to contribute to a product and enlisting other consumers to do the same. One major boycott of this affected Amazon. The boycott was organised in 2014 with consumers urged to to buy their Christmas presents there. Some boycotts are prearranged and called by organisations – and even governments. In 1980, to protest the USSR invasion of Afghanistan, the American government proposed a boycott of the Olympics, due to take place in Moscow. A further 64 countries then also refused to take part, and the games saw the most significant boycott in their history.

  • Do they inflict financial damage?

    It depends. Most of the time, a boycott aims to damage a company financially by encouraging enough people to stop supporting it. In some cases, this does not work. The ongoing Amazon boycott has had virtually no impact on the company.

    On the other hand, a boycott that put pressure on Nestlé for marketing baby food unethically resulted in the company losing about £93 billion in its first two months. Nevertheless, most experts agree that boycotts fail to inflict long-term damage, as active participation decreases over time.

  • So, how do they bring about change?

    Boycotts ultimately aim to bring about reform. Such change might not happen directly – for example putting a company out of business – but they are consistently successful when in raising public awareness. Attention grows, adding to calls for change from different quarters.

    A very recent example of this phenomenon is the call to boycott Disney’s Mulan. While it has done little to affect the film or its makers, it did bring accentuate concerns about the Chinese repression of Uighurs.

  • Do they change people’s minds?

    Yes! Perhaps the most significant example is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1955, segregation was still in place in many parts of the US, including Montgomery, Alabama. One day, a 15-year-old girl was dragged off a bus for sitting in a whites-only section. Nine months later, Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on a bus.

    Parks’s actions caught the public imagination. Other activists arranged a boycott of the bus service that lastedf or 381 days. The protest kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement in the US, resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

  • Are they becoming more popular?

    It looks like it. In a 2017 study, three-quarters of Americans said they would refuse to purchase a product if they found out a company supported an issue contrary to their beliefs. This newfound awareness runs parallel to the rise of technology and the ability to go viral with your intentions to stand against an organisation.

    Similarly, boycotting individuals has become increasingly common online, even gaining its own name – cancel culture. In this form of protest, celebrities snd other public figures are being called out on social media and “cancelled” with increasing frequency.

You Decide

  1. Do individuals ever have the power to change the world alone?


  1. Research a famous historical boycott and make a presentation about it. Find out who was involved, how long it was and whether it was successful.

Word Watch

The company is accused of tax avoidance and underpaying its staff. Protesters point to the income and lifestyle of CEO Jeff Bezos compared with the working conditions of Amazon delivery drivers and warehouse staff.
The report Baby Killer, written in 1974, revealed that the international food company was encouraging breast milk alternatives in developing countries, leading to deeper poverty and increased child mortality rates.
Racial separation was mandated in law in several southern US states.
Civil Rights Act
An act, signed in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. It also required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.
Cancel culture
Now a popular concept, this has to do with the removal of support for public figures in response to perceived objectionable behaviour or opinions. Recent celebrities to be “cancelled” are Ellen DeGeneres and Killing Eve star Jodie Comer.
It is thought that over a million Uighur people have been sent to detention camps for harsh “re-education” so that they respect Communist Party doctrine instead of their traditional Muslim beliefs.

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