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The Ethical Shopper's Guide to Boycotts

Before deciding whether to spend your time and energy participating in a boycott, you should know what makes one successful.
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Consumer boycotts can be an exceptionally effective way for shoppers to express their unhappiness with businesses, corporations, or even entire countries. When consumers stop shopping en masse, companies listen — at least, that's the theory. But what happens when everyone is boycotting everything?

We explore the "trend" of ethical boycotts, the three things that make for a successful boycott, and actions you can take when boycotting isn't an option.

American History Is Full of Boycotts

With boycotts taking up so much space in today's newspapers, it's easy to forget they're not a modern invention.

In fact, the principled boycott has an honored place in the history of American protest. After the Boston Tea Party, future president John Adams called for a tea boycott, saying, "Tea must be universally renounced," and "I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better." In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white man. This event triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted for more than a year and started a critical period in the civil rights movement.

But boycotts haven't always been about civil rights and revolution. In 1997, the New York Movie Theater Association announced a $1 price increase, to $9.50 per ticket. This prompted calls for a boycott from consumer advocacy group "Consumers Unite!" and City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, who called the price hike "an absolute outrage," and "a mugging of the middle class."

'I said I would picket as long as one person was behind me. I looked behind me when I got to the theaters; nobody was there. So I bought a ticket and saw the movie.'

That boycott failed — though not so dramatically as a similar boycott led by New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1988, when ticket prices increased from $6 to $7. "I said I would picket as long as one person was behind me," Koch told the New York Times. "I looked behind me when I got to the theaters; nobody was there. So I bought a ticket and saw the movie."

Boycotts Are 'In'

These days, it seems like boycotts are everywhere. And businesswoman and first daughter Ivanka Trump's clothing lines are the most recent targets.

The #GrabYourWallet campaign, which is protesting the Trump administration, claimed credit for several major retailers (including Nordstrom, Sears, Kmart, and Neiman Marcus) discontinuing her products or other Trump-branded items. For their part, these companies have blamed poor performance on the products' discontinuation, but stopped short of attributing that performance to any boycott.

SEE ALSO: Is Your Local Macy's, Sears, or Kmart Closing?

And that's not the only boycott happening right now. Advertising activist group Sleeping Giants has been pressuring companies to pull their ads from conservative news site Breitbart. As retaliation, Breitbart called on its readers to boycott Kellogg, one of the companies that withdrew ads. Also, when Uber turned off its "surge pricing" feature after a New York taxi strike, more than 200,000 users deleted their Uber accounts.

In a shopping environment that seems more politicized than ever, it can be difficult to keep up with everything shoppers are supposed to be abstaining from. So many groups are calling for so many different boycotts that it's impossible to keep track of them all.

"We may be starting to see boycott fatigue," suggested Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University who studies how consumer activism affects corporations. "We're just overrun with boycotts at the moment," King told Fast Company.

So many boycotts are happening, in fact, that there's an app for that. Buycott, available for Android and iOS, allows consumers to scan barcodes and see how particular products line up with their values.

3 Things That Make Boycotts Successful

Before deciding whether to spend your time and energy participating in a boycott, you should know what makes one successful.

Clear goals
First, the boycott must have a clear target and clear goals. Boycotts of multinational conglomerates are challenging because those entities produce so many different products that it's sometimes hard to tell which goods are made by which subsidiary companies.

The real power of a boycott lies in its ability to damage a company's reputation.

Easy participation
Second, the boycott must be easy to participate in. Ideally, shoppers should be able to find alternatives to the boycotted products without difficulty. For example, The Washington Post described Ivanka Trump's clothing as "unremarkable" and "safe," in that it "doesn't give [shoppers and merchants] anything they can't get elsewhere." Supporting a boycott needs to be as easy as looking at the next item on the rack.

Lots of publicity
Third, the boycott needs public attention. "Boycotts don't tend to work in the way people think, meaning by hurting the bottom line," King said in a University of Pennsylvania Knowledge@Wharton podcast. The real power of a boycott, according to King, lies in its ability to damage a company's reputation. And for that to happen, the boycott must be well-publicized.

The Best Boycott Alternatives

Sometimes, it's impossible or impractical to support a boycott. For instance, boycotting the electric company would be exceptionally difficult for many. Boycotting the IRS could land you in federal prison. And boycotting the only grocery store in a small town probably isn't realistic.

When joining a boycott isn't an option for you, there are other ways to express your displeasure.

For example, if the target has a monopoly in their industry or is part of the government, think about reaching out to your elected officials. You may not be able to boycott the electric company, but you can write letters to your representatives and your public utilities commission demanding change.

SEE ALSO: What Happens to Prices When a Store Closes?

Also, you probably can't boycott your trash service, but calling it out on social media, sending emails to its investors, or writing letters to the editor in your local paper can all influence decision-makers — especially if you get your friends to join in.

And while you might not be able to influence a big box retailer's plans to open a new store in your town, you can talk to your local elected officials about zoning laws, and attend planning meetings to express your concerns.

Even the oft-maligned online petition can be useful. A Change.org user named Molly Katchpole created a petition asking Bank of America to drop its $5/month debit card fee. Then the petition got more than 300,000 signatures, and the bank dropped the fee. She did the same thing when Verizon proposed a $2 online-bill-paying fee; the wireless carrier ended up dropping the proposal.

Readers, have you ever participated in a boycott? Do you know of any other boycott tips or alternatives? Share them in the comments below!


Contributing Writer

Sean is a freelance writer and photojournalist working in the Hampton Roads region. He has been a writer, adventure motorcyclist, drag racer, data nerd, shade-tree mechanic, and tornado chaser. Recommend good beers to him on Twitter at @wxgeek.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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12 comments
DeletedUser103763035
Dealnews has shown a steady decline in the past few years and this is pretty much the bottom. I come to Dealsnews for just that "deals" not politics.
Tell me what is ethical about doing your best to put a company out of business and employees losing their jobs? If you have an issue with a company just don't purchase their products, don't do business with them.
What a bunch of cry baby whiners. You obviously can't have a life when you are constantly trying to ruin people and businesses.
I will no longer use Dealnews. Am I going to try to get a mob together to hate Dealnes? No, I will just no longer use the site. I don't want harm the business or employees.
My opinion is mine. I don't need some one to form one for me .
Oh and happyleo learn how to spell and God bless you...you will need it with your attitude.
westcoastpatriot
Interesting and good points. A few other things I'd add: keep in mind boycotting doesn't just hurt CEOs and management, people on the ground in a large corporation (e.g. Target store employees) who may have had nothing to do with the executive decisions, may bear the brunt of an effective boycott. Also, some boycotts actually backfire - witness the Chick-fil-a "controversy", incited by a vocal minority looking to make an example, that resulted in a surge of traditionalist supporters swamping the restaurants in such numbers many restaurants ran out of food for a day. Lastly, the trend is getting tiresome of companies, especially from silicon valley, feeling the need to make political statements (usually leftist) which, whether intentional or not, end up offending half of their clients. How about just focus on making good products and services?
dtrudea
Great article deal news. Keep up the good work.
termaxnew
THIS kind of article is why I subscribe to Dealnews. Great deals, interesting topics, & ticked-off trolls. Keep up the good work!
Rawmeat
If people don't like certain bog articles, why do they keep reading them and even waste time commenting? I just skip reading whatever does not interest me. Too easy.
happyleo
@DEALSHOPPER222, @bollotwo
Oh you guys are threatning staffs of this website.
Now I know why trump became the president of this country.
The reason is you people who don't have any interest of political issue.
Remember. People like you are ruining this country.
"The hottest place of hell is for onlookers."
DEALSHOPPER222
This is most certainly not the type of article I would like to see on a "deals" site. There are plenty of other places that provide this type of information if I choose to seek it out. I'll definitely be spending less time at the dealnews site now.
bollotwo
@Lindsay Sakraida
Thanx for your reply.
I think I'll "spend" my time over at SlickDeals
francobollo
Lindsay Sakraida (DealNews)
@bollotwo Hi there, we are indeed a deal site, and as such we don't cover politics. The Blog though is where we talk about trends in shopping, and there's no denying that it's become very common for shoppers to feel the need to alter their purchases based on values that are important to them, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. We did our best to acknowledge, in an unbiased way, that this is indeed a thing that happens a lot these days and to present the pertinent concerns for those who want to engage with it.
encorez
if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
bollotwo
I visit this site for deals, not politics.
If this keeps up, I'm gone.
francobolo
happyleo
Boycott is one of the civil power of this economy system-Capitalism.

As a foreign student, I realized that people of U.S are very weak for showing there power.

Dear U.S. people,
You people have power.
Power of not buying evil products.
You don't need superheroes to solve your problem.
Collect information of evil companies' evil acts.
And stand together.
Surround evil companies walls, and shout their guilt.
Make a blacklist of evil companies.
Share the facts that evil companies did.
Choose companies to make boycotts.
Don't buy there product.

We destroyed some companies even they changed their name.
We brought Samsung's CEO to the jail.
Now we are ready for kick out our bad president.

Now your turn. US people. Show your power.