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Boycott Organizer's Guide
Updated and revised by:
Connie Murtagh, Senior Corporate Responsibility Researcher,
Co-op America (email@example.com)
Carla Lukehart, Responsible Shopper Research Coordinator,
Co-op America (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This guide is designed to kick-start your boycott organizing efforts. To that end, we've provided
information on a number of the basic strategies and resources you'll find useful in getting started. We
hope that you find the guide's simplicity and exclusivity has been the right solution to your organizing
The information in this guide is based on our discussions with boycott organizers since we began tracking
boycotts in 1984. The guide itself has been published and distributed to boycott organizers for nearly ten
years, but the rapid changes in technology continually produce new resources and new strategies for
boycott organizers. While we've attempted to keep up with new opportunities for boycott organizers,
we'd be happy to hear of ideas and resources to improve the guide's effectiveness.
Boycotts.org (www.boycotts.org) is a free online resource providing up-to-date information on national
boycotts in the U.S. If your organization is planning or already manages a boycott, we want to know
about it. Contact email@example.com.
What is a boycott?
Boycotts are a tool for holding corporations accountable for actions against workers, consumers,
communities, minorities, animals or the environment. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (7th Ed.)
defines a boycott as "a concerted refusal to have anything to do with, usually as an expression of
disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions." Simply translated, this is marketplace
democracy in action - consumers voting with their dollars for social and economic change.
What is the history of boycotts?
The term originated in Ireland in 1780 when English estate manager Charles Cunningham Boycott was
"boycotted" by famine-threatened Irish farmers for refusing to lower rents. Since then, boycotts have
become an important part of American history, used to protest everything from government involvement
in industries to unfair labor practices. Following the Stamp Act in 1765, American colonists in Boston,
Philadelphia, and New York began a boycott of British goods that lasted through the Revolutionary War.
A boycott strategy was adopted by trade unions during the labor movement of the late 1800s. German
goods were boycotted by the American Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Montgomery,
Alabama bus boycott organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1950s became a defining moment of
the Civil Rights Movement. The United Farm Workers boycott of table grapes, begun by Cesar Chavez in
the 1960s, and the recent boycott of Nestle over the marketing of infant formula in developing countries
has greatly impacted attitudes and business practices in those industries.
Who calls boycotts?
Any concerned group can call a boycott. Groups have been more successful in calling and executing
boycotts than individuals because there is strength in numbers. Monroe Friedman studied 90 boycotts that
occurred between 1970 and 1980. He found that labor unions, racial minorities, religious groups,
consumer groups, and women's rights activists most commonly initiated boycotts. Other groups
organizing boycotts include gay rights groups, anti-war activists, health advocates, and anti-abortion
groups. Also common are boycotts combining two or more interests. An increasing number of
environmental groups are using boycotts as a means of influencing corporations and effecting change.
Who participates in boycotts?
Any consumer is a potential boycotter. According to The Wall Street Journal, "a 1989 Roper survey
showed that boycotters often come from two-income families, hold college degrees, and hail from the
big-spending thirty-something crowd" (11/8/90, p. B1).
How are boycotts organized?
Boycotts require the dedication and work of energetic activists, the support of enthusiastic consumers, and
lots of planning. The reason for the boycott must be accurate, verifiable, and definitively stated. "A
successful campaign, no matter how we define it, has to begin with clear, realistic, measurable goals,"
according to Barbara Beck of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Once a target is carefully chosen, the design of the campaign must aim for an achievable result.
Boycott activists should draw upon the wisdom and experience of other organizers, especially those who
have led successful campaigns. Network with other activists, organizers, community groups, and media to
spread the message of the boycott and gain publicity. Use press releases and informational materials as
part of a comprehensive media strategy. Find and utilize boycott media, local press, and alternative press.
How can shareholder resolutions help boycotts?
Shareholder resolutions are another powerful economic tool consumers can use to facilitate change.
Sometimes the threat of resolutions from stockholders asking a company to change a policy is enough to
push company leaders to negotiate with activists: concerned corporate executives want to avoid the
embarrassment of such a resolution coming to a full shareholder vote. More often, resolutions for
disclosure of information on environmental records or workplace issues can be the catalyst for changing
and improving company policies.
Are boycotts effective?
A nationwide survey found that business leaders consider boycotts to be more effective than other
consumer techniques such as class action suits, letter writing campaigns, and lobbying. Because
well-organized boycotts directly threaten sales, company leaders take them seriously (Friedman, 1991)
(See Resources.) According to Todd Putnam, former editor of the now-defunct National Boycott News,
"Boycotts used to take between five and ten years to get results, but now they take about two. That's
because they're better organized and get more media attention: corporations recognize the damage
potential much earlier."
Why is Co-op America involved with boycotts?
Co-op America is a member-controlled and worker-managed nonprofit organization working to educate
consumers and businesses on how to align the power of their buying and investing habits with social and
environmental responsibility. Boycotting is one of Co-op America's four strategies buy, invest, boycott,
demand change for changing the way America does business.
Significant Boycott Victories
These boycott victories represent a variety of issues. Some are significant for the length of the boycott
(12 years in one case) while others set new policy benchmarks or garnered major public attention.
Organizer: United Farmworkers of Washington State (UFW), AFL-CIO
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: Company officials at the Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest wineries established
contract negotiations with vineyard workers and agreed to a union representative election.
Following a worker vote, the wineries became the first in the country to be unionized.
Organizer: Free Burma Coalition
Category: Human Rights
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: A number of large corporations including PepsiCo, Eastman Kodak, IBM, Disney, and
Texaco have reacted to pressure and have withdrawn business from Burma in response to
the country's human rights abuses. The Free Burma Coalition continues to boycott against
BMW, Caterpillar, Halliburton, Mitsubishi, Sony, and a number of other companies that
remain financially involved with Burma.
Organizer: Rainforest Action Network
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: In 1998, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) ended a 9-year boycott of Mitsubishi Motor
Sales America and Mitsubishi Electric America when the divisions pledged to stop the use
of old-growth timber and to use almost all non-wood-based paper by 2002. The divisions
also agreed to implement a number of environmentally-friendly initiatives into their
Organizer: ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power)
Category: Civil Liberties
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: In protest of Philip Morris Company's financial support of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-North
Carolina), whom ACT-UP alleges holds anti-gay views, ACT-UP boycotted Marlboro
cigarettes. As a compromise, Philip Morris agreed to donate $2.3 to $3 million annually to
organizations providing services to people with AIDS.
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: Successfully pressured General Electric to sell its last nuclear weapons-related division.
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: The NAACP launched a successful boycott against Texaco in 1997. Reports of racist
behavior by executives resulted in a boycott of the company until it released a plan to
advance minority employment and increase purchasing from minority-owned suppliers.
Organizer: International Fund for Animal Welfare
Category: Animal Protection
Target: Company Practices
Achieved: A 5-year consumer boycott against Mitsubishi's automobile and electronics products was
one of the factors that led to company in 2000 to cancel it's plans to construct a major salt
mine. The proposed mine would have threatened the habitats of 72 animal species,
including the last Pacific gray whale nursery.
Organizers: Boycott Shell Campaign, Educators Against Racism and Apartheid, Coke Divestment
Category: Human Rights
Target: Government Policies
Achieved: Boycotts of Shell, Kellogg's, and Coca-Cola (among others) prompted shareholder
resolutions demanding divestment from South Africa. This became the catalyst for the
abolition of apartheid in 1994.
Organizer: Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
Target: Withdrawal of sponsorship
Achieved: GLAAD called for a boycott against Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio and TV talk shows
after she made discriminatory remarks about homosexuals on her radio show. Gay rights
groups, listeners, and viewers boycotted her shows resulting in an estimated loss of $30
million. In addition, dozens of companies, including Procter & Gamble, Verizon, Coca-
Cola, and Toyota, pulled their advertising from the show in protest. The television show
was canceled after only one year on the air.
Organizer: Irish National Caucus
Target: Agree to Non-discrimination Code
Achieved: The Irish National Caucus ended a 12-year boycott of Ford Motor in 1998, when the
company agreed to implement the McBride Principles. The principles prevent US
companies from subsidizing anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland.
Co-op America's Boycott Organizer's Guide Page 6 of 15
Choosing The Boycott Target
Boycotts stem from consumers' frustration with the effect a company, a policy, or a product has on
society. They change social, environmental, and political issues into economic variables so that the issues
"can be acted upon by consumer 'voting behavior,' consisting of decreased dollar expenditures in the retail
marketplace" (Freidman, 1991) (See Resources).
Three Types Of Boycott Targets
I. A company's product, method of production, or type of packaging may be objectionable.
Suggested Approach: Boycott one or only a few of a company's products. It is easier for consumers
to remember fewer product names. Choose a product with accessible alternatives. The product(s)
chosen should be easy to identify and frequently purchased.
Example: The NAACP and other black organizations called for a boycott of the Adams Mark Hotel
chain in 1998 because of the company's overt display of racial discrimination. The boycott resulted
in an $8 million settlement from the hotel chain.
II. A company whose practices or policies are offensive.
Suggested Approach: In this case, one or several of a company's products are boycotted. The
company chosen for a boycott should be visible, easy to identify, vulnerable, image conscious, and
clearly guilty of the grievance.
Example: In 1998, the Natural Resources Defense Council and SeaWeb organized over 750 chefs
nationwide to stop serving swordfish in their restaurants because of concerns that the populations
were being seriously depleted by market demands. In 2000, the U.S. government closed swordfish
nursery areas to fishing and the boycott was ended.
III. A country or state's government may be involved in objectional practices.
Suggested Approach: Boycott an industry or company crucial to that government. This is known as
an indirect boycott. As a result, organizers hope the company will pressure the government into
yielding to the boycotters' demands. The industry chosen for an indirect boycott should: have strong
business and/or financial ties with the country or state government, understand activists' goals and
businesses' potential in achieving them, and be able to exert substantial pressure on its government.
Example: In opposition to French nuclear testing, the International Peace Bureau called for a boycott
of French products. The French wine industry was hit especially hard by the boycott because of its
international popularity. According to Bruce Hall, coordinator for the Comprehensive Test Ban
Clearinghouse, the boycott combined with the protests had a real impact: the number of tests were
reduced by 25 percent. Additionally, French President Chirac committed to signing on to a
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Before Launching A Boycott
1. Research all possible targets. Choose a target that is likely to yield to your demands and that will gain
the support of consumers.
2. Get all the facts about the company and the offensive policy or action. It may be more difficult to
get information from the company later. Use the company's annual reports (readily available at the library
or posted on the Internet) to obtain important company information such as product and brand names,
the president and/or CEO's name(s), and addresses and phone numbers. Be ready to justify why you
chose your target to consumers and the media.
3. Write to or meet with the company to voice your grievance. Indicate that if the policy or action is not changed, you intend to initiate a consumer boycott.
4. Occasionally the threat of a boycott can make the company yield to your demands.Some organizers attempt to negotiate with the company first and use a boycott strategy only if negotiations fail to bring about the desired changes.
5. Organize a coalition that includes the support or endorsements of other organizations. Be prepared to present numbers to the company to show the support for and strength of the boycott.
MORE BOYCOTT SUCCESS STORIES
· In the United Kingdom, Survival International threatened Scott Paper with a boycott because its
plans for a eucalyptus plantation and paper mill in Indonesia threatened the survival of tribal
peoples. In a letter to Scott Paper, Survival International wrote, "if we call a boycott, we will
mobilize our 20,000 members, and it will also be endorsed by the Sierra Club which has two
million members." In response to the threat, Scott Paper abandoned its plans.
· In 1997, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and Natural Resources Defense Council
formed the Coastal Rainforest Coalition (CRC) to encourage Home Depot to end purchasing
timber from ancient forests. The CRC initially entered into discussion with Home Depot and
then began to target the company with advertising, letter campaigns, petitions, public
demonstrations, and shareholder resolutions. In 1999, the company announced it would no
longer purchase wood from endangered regions.
· International Fund for Animal Welfare's successful boycott protesting Mitsubishi's plan to build
a salt plant in gray whale calving grounds called together activists from the U.S. and Mexico.
Included in these participants was the Grupo de los Cien (Group of 100), a network of leading
Mexican artists and intellectuals); 17 organizations, including Earth Island Institute, the Sierra
Club, Rainforest Action Network, Friends of the Earth, the Transnational Resource and Action
Center, and the Coastal Rainforest Coalition; and celebrities Pierce Brosnan, Octavio Paz, Allen
Ginsberg, Glenn Close, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.
Setting Goals For The Boycott
1. Determine the boycott's objectives. Should you pressure the target by impacting product sales
(economic and consumer-oriented) or by attacking the company's image (reputational and mediaoriented)?
More organizers are choosing a reputational approach than in the past as companies have paid more
attention to cultivating more socially concerned images. However, companies remain highly
sensitive to any consumer concern which appears to affect purchasing behaviors even if it's likely
to influence a very small percentage of their customers.
Example: In the late 1980s Earth Island Institute called a boycott of Starkist tuna (H.J. Heinz)
because it was being caught by methods that killed dolphins. Earth Island Institute's objective in
boycotting Starkist tuna was to attack Heinz's carefully cultivated corporate image by portraying the
company as a dolphin-killer.
2. Identify and state clearly the boycott's demands to the targeted company and consumers.
Clearly tell the company what changes it must make to end the boycott be as specific as you can.
Both companies and consumers are far more likely to agree to a set of demands that they can clearly
Example: INFACT clearly stated their demands of GE: 1) stop nuclear weapons production; 2) stop
interfering in government decisions of war and peace; 3) implement plans to convert GE operations
and jobs that are currently involved with weapons production to peaceful endeavors. INFACT
intended for the GE boycott to be long-term and acquired the necessary resources from the start.
3. Determine the time frame for the boycott right from the beginning. Make sure you have the
resources to continue for the length of time anticipated to get results. Be prepared for an extended
battle boycotts can take years before achieving the desired result.
4. Make your demands specific and behavior-oriented. Boycotts that ask the company to change a
specific action or policy are more successful than boycotts that express general displeasure.
5. Make your demands substantial but realistic. Ask for what you need, but make a point to
understand the company's point of view. If you're not familiar with the way businesspeople think (or
even if you are), get feedback on your proposals from sympathetic businesspeople. It's not selling
out to understand how the company might react to various demands and language.
THE POWER OF BOYCOTTS
According to John Monogoven, senior vice president of Pagan International Inc., a public relations
firm, success is more than just a decrease in sales. "Very rarely is the impact felt at the cash
register," he says. "You have problems with employee morale. Employees don't like working for a
company that is being attacked. You have problems with recruiting the top students from colleges
and universities because they don't want to get involved with a company in that kind of a problem.
Also, you find that top-level executives spend an inordinate amount of time on the issue when they
should be doing other things" (Insight, 10/26/87, p.44).
Organizing: Getting Institutional Support For Your Boycott
1. Solicit participation from large institutions. If your goal is to get broad support, large institutions
can provide greater legitimacy for your effort which will open doors to other endorsements, bigger
constituent bases, and possibly more media coverage.
Example: An on-going INFACT boycott has targeted Kraft Food products to protest the tobaccopromoting
activities of parent company Philip Morris. The boycott has gained support from the
American Medical Student Association, The United Methodist Church, and 200 other organizations
and has been the subject of the documentary Making a Killing: Philip Morris, Kraft, and Global
2. Get endorsements from non-profit organizations. Ask them to notify their members of the boycott.
Many larger organizations have endorsement committees to approve organizational support for
3. Seek endorsements from institutional shareholders in the company. Check the company's
ownership for progressive investors who may support your cause with a letter to the company. If you
get support, consider launching a broader shareholder campaign on the issue.
4. Convince companies to "join" your boycott. Even if they don't announce their support, peer
pressure from other companies can increase your boycott's impact immensely and help avoid the
perception that your demands are radical and unreasonable.
Example: A Canadian boycott against Japanese paper company Daishowa caused the company to
stop logging on land claimed by Lubicon Cree natives. The boycott, organized by Friends of the
Lubicon, targeted companies that used Daishowa packaging boxes and bags. Friends of the Lubicon
got 48 companies to change paper suppliers. The boycott cost Daishowa $14 million in lost sales.
Example: Co-op America convinced a number of publicly-traded companies to inform the Securities
and Exchange Commission of their support for the right of shareholders to file resolutions on social
and environmental issues. This helped damage the commission's perception that these "activist"
proposals were bad for business.
Publicity: Getting Your Message To Consumers And The Media
1. Develop a clear, simple, concise message.
Example: SeaWeb and NRDC decided that they would target famous chefs to get across their
message about dwindling swordfish. They decided they didn't need every chef in the country just
the ones who regularly appeared in the media.
2. Distribute leaflets about your boycott in front of stores where the product is sold.
3. Get consumers to sign petitions or cards pledging to support the boycott. Send these to the
4. Produce educational materials, films, or demonstration kits to educate consumers about the
issue and how they can help.
Example: Earth Island Institute produced a documentary shown on college campuses nationwide and
on television about the tuna-dolphin connection. The film offered a Western Union number viewers
could call to have a telegram sent to H.J. Heinz. Over 30,000 telegrams were sent.
5. Advertise in newspapers, on radio, and on television.
6. Let Co-op America know about your boycott. We print selected boycotts regularly in our
publications. By notifying Co-op America, boycott organizers directly inform over 150,000 people
per year about their cause through Boycott Action News and boycotts.org.
7. Sponsor Public Service Announcements on your local radio and television stations.
8. Seek out a celebrity and/or a well-known organization's endorsement, asking them to announce
the boycott with YOU. Get endorsements from celebrities, politicians, sports figures, writers
anyone with media access.
Example: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has enlisted the support of such
celebrities as Alice Walker and Cindy Crawford as spokespersons to promote its cause on television
public service announcements and at rallies.
9. Network. Talk to other organizers, marketers, organizations, and media outlets.
10. Produce buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.
11. Create a Web Site with information on the boycott. Clearly describe the reasons, organizer, target
and product(s). Be sure you're able to regularly update the progress of the boycott and don't forget to
include information about who to contact and how to get involved. Also be sure to register the site
with search engines. Pro bono help is available for the asking to good causes especially in Web
12. Send e-mail alerts and updates. Use a "viral" strategy and get people to pass along the messages to
friends and family.
Example: International Fund for Animal Welfare initiated a worldwide Internet letter-writing
campaign protesting Mitsubishi's proposed salt plant that garnered nearly a million signatures.
13. Sponsor rallies, walk-a-thons, and other events to raise awareness.
Example: In 1993, the Pure Food Campaign organized a number of "milk dumps" at stores to protest
the pending FDA approval of BGH.
14. Write press releases to notify the media of rallies, press conferences, demonstrations, or any
other events supporting the boycott.
15. Hold a press conference.
16. Hold demonstrations in front of the company's headquarters.
17. Organize demonstrations to take place in several cities on the same day. This is a good strategy
for attracting national media attention.
Example: Rainforest Action Network coordinated numerous actions at Home Depot stores
throughout the United States during its demonstrations on old-growth wood.
18. Speak at community functions.
19. Make your boycott interesting to the local press.
20. Write editorials and letters to the editor for local and national newspapers. Be sure to contact
progressive media outlets such as MinuteMan Media, Environmental News Network, and
21. Write articles for other organizations' newsletters.
Negotiating With The Company
1. Request meetings with the company to discuss your concerns.
2. Deliver petitions and signed postcards to the company. Design postcards so that consumers send
one part to the company and one part to you; or set up an electronic mail letter that consumers can
add their names to and send to the company and other interested consumers. This enables you to track
how many messages are sent.
Example: INFACT sent General Electric over 94,000 postcards signed by consumers prior to
launching the boycott and collected another 100,000 signatures on petitions during the first nine
months of the boycott.
Example: Earth Island Institute's newspaper and magazine ads included a coupon consumers could
fill out and send to Heinz. The ads also included a coupon to be sent to the organizers for monitoring
3. Write to the chair of the Board of Directors and the CEO. CEOs don't always inform the Board of
boycotts or threatened boycotts. Boards of Directors are often very protective of their companies'
4. Attend company shareholder meetings to discuss your concerns and work with stockholders
to organize shareholder resolutions. (See Resources for more information about shareholder activism.)
5. Demonstrate at shareholder meetings with speeches, posters, and petitions.
6. Monitor the amount of press coverage you are getting and let the company know your message
is getting out. Send them clippings from newspapers and magazines.
7. Watch the way the company responds to the boycott for indications of success. Remember,
success is more than just a decrease in sales.
Resources For Boycott Organizing and Learning about Boycotts
· Consumer Boycotts: Effecting Change Through the Marketplace and Media, Monroe Friedman, 1999.
Examines boycotts both historically and currently. Draws on published and unpublished material as
well as personal interviews with boycott groups and their targets.
· Morality and the Market: Consumer Pressure for Corporate Accountability, N. Craig Smith
Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc. 29 West 35th Street New York, NY 10001.
An academic perspective of the boycott strategy. The British author studies the boycott within models
of capitalism. Case studies of the United Farm Workers grape boycott, the Nestle boycott, and others.
· Boycott in America : How Imagination and Ideology Shape the Legal Mind, Gary Minda, 1999.
Provides a history of the boycotts in three separate legal fields: labor, antitrust, and constitutional
law. For lawyers, judges, and legal scholars, this book provides a clear and cogent examination of
boycott law. Lay readers interested in understanding the role of boycotts in American law and society
will find the book insightful.