Return to main

Co-op America's

Boycott Organizer's Guide


Updated and revised by:

Connie Murtagh, Senior Corporate Responsibility Researcher,

Co-op America (

Carla Lukehart, Responsible Shopper Research Coordinator,

Co-op America (


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.


Request ( 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


Boycotts FAQ

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

Category: Labor

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

Category: Environment

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.


Organizer: INFACT

Category: Environment

Target: Company Practices

Achieved: Successfully pressured General Electric to sell its last nuclear weapons-related division.

Organizer: NAACP

Category: Discrimination

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)

Category: Discrimination

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

Category: Discrimination

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.




· 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.




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

Tobacco Addiction.


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


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'

public image.


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.