How Can a Boycott Actually Work? The Failure of Consumer Activism

Admittedly, some boycotts have worked: Glenn Beck seems to have been seriously harmed by the boycotts against his advertisers. But what happens when the corporations you want to boycott have massive market share? The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a corporate-backed lobbying group that has essentially written many laws at the state level, including Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan. One-third of all state legislators (overwhelmingly Republican) are members of ALEC, and ALEC has pushed some really awful legislation, including limiting consumer rights, environmental protection, and trying to privatize education.

So let's say one wanted to boycott ALEC's supporters. Well, here's the list:

American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity
American Electric Power
Atmos Energy
American Federation for Children

Oh, I'm sorry, that's only the list of companies and lobbying groups that begin with the letter "A". Here's the rest of the list to give you the full flavor:

Reynolds American
Takeda Pharmaceutical
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity
American Electric Power
Lumina Foundation
State Farm
State Policy Network
Walton Family Foundation
Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
Freepont-McMoran Copper & Gold
Johnson & Johnson
Koch Industries
LouisDreyfus Commodities
Louisiana Seafood
McMoran Exploration
National Rifle Association
TogetherRX Access
Atmos Energy
BlueCross BlueShield Association
Chesapeake Energy
Energy Transfer
Gulf States Toyota
International Paper
Jacobs Entertainment
QEP Resources
American Federation for Children
BlueCross Blue Shield of Lousiana
Genesee & Wyoming Inc.
Harris Deville & Associates
Kansas City Southern
Kraft Foods
Louisiana Chemical Association
Louisiana Railroads Association
Louisiana Realtors
Norfolk Southern
Society of Louisiana CPAs
Southern Strategy Group
Spectra Energy
The Capitol Group
Union Pacific

How can one boycott pharmaceutical companies with exclusive patents? How does one not buy goods shipped on CSX? In many places, there are de facto cable monopolies, so it's COX or no TV. Ditto Walgreens. Stop buying natural gas (Chesapeake Energy)? In many cases, a consumer-driven approach is impossible (and a stellar example of why anti-trust law should be enforced).

This is a case where the marketplace dominates the political sphere. And that is not good for most Americans.

An aside: It's worth reminding people that economics used to be called political economics. The political ramifications of economic activity were not ignored, or seen as natural outcomes.


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Hm. What about the "Boycott Grapes" movement of the 1970s?

That seemed to work -- combined with action on the part of the workers.

That may be what is missing from more recent efforts...

Another boycott idea that was useful was the Nestle boycott, in reaction to their methods of aggresively marketing of baby formula to the 3rd world. Instead of asking people to stay away from all Nestle products, they licked just one candy bar. Nestle got hit on that bar, not something that made a big difference to their overall business but something that showed they were vunerable.

And the Florida orange juice boycott (after their spokesperson, Anita Bryant, denounced gays) worked well enough that a few years later the Florida orange growers -- who had made a huge deal of promting that their juice was made from Florida oranges -- lobbied the government to allow them top leave off where their juice came from.

Certainly targetted boycotts can work, and with a list like the above, that's probably the only way to go.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 28 Aug 2011 #permalink

You might not be able to boycott all of them at once but you can start with a few and transition to eliminating more of them from your consumer spending.

Plus you can write to all of them expressing your displeasure.

All or nothing approaches are not always feasible. Taking some small steps at first is always possible.

Don't give up hope. Keep the faith!

The problem with boycotts, and with the "shop green" framework," is that they assume our primary power is as consumers, not as voters or workers. As consumers, we're isolated, bombarded by marketing and green-washing, and only capable of boycotting final products, not inputs like steel or coal. In our workplaces we interact directly with other people in the same situation with the same interests and have the potential to disrupt production and impose immediate, visible economic costs. In the political sphere there is at least a sense that collective action matters. We won't get meaningful social change with a strategy based on "one dollar, one vote."

By Ann Maria Bell (not verified) on 29 Aug 2011 #permalink

There's the additional problem of brand purchase.

Nestle were being hurt by a boycott. They bought up Cadbury (IIRC) and kept the name, and it was all fine: people had to buy their stuff from SOME company.

We are, to them, no longer customers, we're consumers.

They know that in the main we have no choice but to consume. Therefore as long as no large player treats their consumers any better than the others, they can all shave costs and treat us all like crap.

The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run the plants and the farms. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. For them nothing counts other than their own satisfaction. They do not care a whit for past merit and vested interests. If something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors. In their capacity as buyers and consumers they are hard-hearted and callous, without consideration for other people. - Ludwig von Mises

Which is why me must no longer be CONSUMERS.


We PATRONIZE their establishment.

WE have what they want: money.