A boycott is a call to stop buying from or using a certain company because they’ve done something that’s considered unethical or otherwise unacceptable; some are successful, some aren’t, and some made history. They cover all different types of business and industries. Here are 10 of the most famous, starting with the one that gave us the word:
1. The Captain Boycott Boycott, 1880
Captain Boycott retired from the army to become a land agent in Ireland. Troubles in the country led to his employer telling him to lower the tenants’ rent; when the tenants decided it hadn’t been lowered enough and refused to pay, he was told to start evicting people.
The tenants didn’t like that very much. His employees stopped working, local businesses wouldn’t take his money, and even the postman wouldn’t deliver his mail. Attempts to continue with a limited workforce and import labour and produce proved too expensive to maintain, and eventually he and his family were forced to move away.
Was it successful? He moved away and the word "boycott" was introduced in 1888, so yes.
Fun fact: It would have been "boycatt" if his parents hadn’t changed the spelling of their name.
2. Britain 1764-1766
During the French-Indian war, Britain decided that the way to recover its losses was to impose taxes on the colonies with the Stamp Act. The colonies didn’t like that idea, and were especially offended by their lack of representation during the decision making, leading to the slogan "no taxation without representation." They fought back by boycotting British goods and rebels started terrorizing British stamp agents into resigning. This desire for autonomy led to further revolts, and eventually the American Revolution.
Was it successful? The act was repealed by George III in 1766, and America got its independence, so yes.
3. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956
The story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat for a white passenger goes beyond that ride.
First, Jo Ann Robinson, a civil rights activist, made African Americans aware that they represented 75% of the Montgomery bus company’s clientele and organized the Monday Boycott whereby all African Americans refused to ride the buses.
It was so successful that the boycott continued for another year, encouraged by Martin Luther King Jr: carpools were created, African American taxi drivers charged African American passengers only a dime, and white employers even took to driving their African American servants to work.
Was it successful? On December 20, 1956, laws requiring segregated buses were declared unconstitutional in Montgomery and across the US, so yes.
4. The Delano Grape Strike, 1965-1969
Led by Cesar Chavez and his National Farmworkers Association (now the United Farm Workers of America), this boycott began when Filipino farm workers in California walked away from their jobs in protest of being the lowest-paid workers in the US; they were receiving less than the federal minimum other workers were given. Upon hearing the news of the strike, millions of Americans boycotted the company by refusing to buy grapes.
Was it successful? At the height of the strike, over 14 million Americans were refusing to buy grapes until historic contracts were finally signed in 1970, so yes.
5. Nestle, 1977-1984
Nestle came under fire when they began a marketing campaign to sell breast milk substitutes to developing countries; they were accused of contributing to health problems and to the rise of infant mortality. The boycott pointed out that formula is less healthy than breast milk, that these mothers lacked clean water which was needed to prepare the formula safely, and that it was too expensive for them to buy once they’d finished the free samples.
Was it successful? The original US boycott ended in 1984 after satisfactory codes and policies were put in place, so yes, but the UK restarted it in 1988 and it’s still in effect.
6. The Summer Olympics, 1980
In 1980 US President Jimmy Carter called for the United States to boycott the Olympics unless Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan. 60 other nations joined in the boycott, with many telling their athletes they weren’t allowed to compete.
16 of the nations who supported the boycott also supported their athletes’ right to choose; they allowed them to go if they wanted to, as long as they marched under their National Olympic Committee (NOC) flag and had the Olympic anthem played at their award ceremonies. As a result, there was one ceremony where three NOC flags were raised.
Was it successful? The USSR didn’t withdraw their troops for another eight years and thirteen Soviet allies then boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation, so no.
The real losers: the athletes who weren’t allowed to compete, the athletes who did compete but didn’t properly represent their country and American broadcaster NBC who lost millions they had put into buying the television rights.
7. International Buy Nothing Day, 1992
Intended as the opposite to Black Friday and a boycott on consumerism, the idea is that people will stop and think about their overconsumption rather than go out and get swept up in the crazy sales. Given that people are still getting injured and arrested in the craziness, it doesn’t seem to have worked.
When is it? Every year, on Black Friday (US) or the following Saturday (rest of the world), which is when people would usually begin their Christmas shopping.
Was it successful? It hasn’t stopped Black Friday or had any effect on consumption in general, so not really. It is still around though, so it did raise some awareness.
What do people do instead?
- A zombie walk
- Whirl Mart. Take nine of your friends to WalMart, grab a trolley and walk around in a conga line buying nothing.
- Credit card cut up. Presumably after cutting your own card, go and stand in a shopping mall and offer to help others by cutting their cards.
8. The Sudanese Civil War Sex Boycott, 2002
Professor Samira Ahmed found a unique way to end the second Sudanese Civil War: she called for wives to abandon sexual relations with their husbands. The earliest record of this idea is actually attributed to Greek playwright Aristophanes and his play Lysistrata, where this tactic is used to end the Peloponnesian War of 404 AC.
Was it successful? The war ended three years later. This might not be why, but three years is a lot shorter than the 19 years it had been going on before they did it.
9. Caterpillar, 2003
Israel realized that these destructive bulldozers would make great "Armored Construction Equipment" and approached Caterpillar, who agreed to arm the Israeli military with bulldozers that were then used to destroy Palestinian homes, farmland and infrastructure as well as any people who got in the way.
The boycott began when student activist Rachel Corrie was killed while trying to peacefully prevent the destruction of a home in Gaza. There are two ongoing actons; a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to encourage investors to stop investing, and a public boycott on Caterpillar’s boots, caps, clothes and other products.
Was it successful? Not entirely, as court cases continue to fail to have the Corrie death ruled a murder and the consumer boycott has been mostly ignored, but there have been some victories: in 2012, Caterpillar was removed from the World Socially Responsible Index, which cost them millions in investment. Progress continues to be made.
10. The Abercrombie & Fitch Girlcott, 2005
This began when a new line of girls’ T-shirts was introduced with slogans that were considered to be offensive and harmful to body image, such as "Who needs brains when you have these?" and "The Freshman 15" with a list of names under it.
Was it successful? Maybe. Five days of protests got the girls behind the boycott a meeting at the corporate headquarters, and a month later the shirts were gone. Whether it was because they listened or because they run out of stock is debatable, as it wasn’t the first or last time they offended people.
Have you ever been involved in a boycott? Do you know of any that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below.