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What is a Boycott?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A boycott is a coordinated effort to avoid purchasing goods and services from a particular company or person. Boycotts are designed to exert pressure on companies, forcing them to reform their ways in a way which satisfies the people involved in the boycott. The labor and civil rights movements have both used boycotts extensively as political tools, perhaps most famously in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 in the American South.

The term “boycott” references an actual person, Captain Charles Boycott, an Englishman who was responsible for managing land in Ireland in the 1800s. When his tenants pressured him to lower their rents, he refused to do so, and evicted them. In response, the tenants organized, denying him goods and services. His crops rotted in the fields because he had no farm workers, he was unable to get deliveries of food and supplies, and he found himself neatly cut off from the community. By 1880, the “Boycott Treatment” was being used in other places, and the word quickly spread to other languages and regions of the world as well.

There are a number of reasons to institute a boycott. As a general rule, boycott organizers view a boycott as a last resort, first attempting to pressure the company involved in other ways, such as through petitions and polite letters. If the company still refuses to institute reforms, the leaders declare a boycott, encouraging people to avoid doing business with the boycotted company and mounting an education and media campaign to explain the reasoning behind the boycott in an attempt to get more people involved.

If a boycott is large enough, a company will start to experience economic problems as a result, and it may be forced to change its ways. Boycotts have been used to push for integration, higher wages for farm workers, more worker protections, and better business practices, among many other things. In campaigns similar to boycotts, people have organized “divestments,” asking organizations to withdraw investments from a particular region of the world, perhaps most notably in South Africa. Numerous academic institutions around the world divested from South Africa to protest apartheid, forcing the South African government to rethink its policies or lose large amounts of funding.

Some countries have legal restrictions on boycotts and how they are organized. Many of these laws focus on the difference between a primary boycott, led by employees, and secondary boycotts, which involve asking third parties to refuse to patronize a particular company. Secondary boycotts which involve coercion are illegal in some countries; for example, if workers at an auto-parts manufacturer struck in an attempt to force the manufacturer to boycott a car manufacturer, this could be punishable by law.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By StormyKnight — On Mar 23, 2011

@dill1971- Boycotting oil companies has never seemed to make a difference. People are very angry when these things happen and the first thing that we want to do is stop giving them our money. We want someone to blame and someone to pay for what has happened. However, all of the efforts to boycott these companies have proven to be futile.

By OceanSwimmer — On Mar 22, 2011

@dill1971- There have several different occurrences with oil companies and/or gas companies. People have tried boycotting these companies many times.

One of the big events before the BP oil spill was the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. In addition, Texaco was sued by the people of Ecuador. Apparently, they contaminated the groundwater, which led to hundreds of people developing a fatal type of cancer. People wanted to boycott Exxon and Texaco in both of those cases, as well.

By dill1971 — On Mar 19, 2011

I have never personally participated in a boycott. However, in my government class, we have been studying the whole issue of boycotting. One thing in particular that we have focused on is the oil companies.

When the BP oil spill happened, many people wanted to boycott. Haven’t there been other occurrences with other gas companies over the years? Would boycotting a gas company or oil company actually prove to be worthwhile?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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