Boycotts and Christians

October 16th, 2018

Famous boycotts in history

The word boycott first entered the English language in response to the actions of Charles Cunningham Boycott, an English landlord. In the late 1800s, Boycott had begun callously evicting tenants in Ireland. The tenants responded by joining with Boycott’s employees and successfully ostracized him for this behavior.

Today, boycotts are generally understood as a collective refusal to financially support companies whose behavior is considered to be unjust or immoral. Boycotts are perhaps best known for their use in labor disputes, but they’ve also been used effectively in a wide range of other situations. Well-known boycotts in history include

  • Mohandas Gandhi’s March to the Sea (1930). To protest British exploitation of India, Gandhi urged India’s people to refuse to buy salt, which included a government tax. He urged them instead to make their own salt from seawater. 
  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955). Rosa Parks’s arrest after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger led to a widely followed boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system by black riders for over a year. 
  • The California Grape Boycott (1960s). Beginning in 1965, the National Farm Workers Association and cofounder César Chávez asked consumers to boycott grapes to pressure growers into improving workers’ wages and working conditions. Millions of Americans participated over several years. 
  • Anti-Apartheid Boycotts (1980s and 1990s). Groups and individuals around the world refused to visit or do business with South Africa during the last years of the apartheid era. At the same time, the United States and other countries enacted economic sanctions against South Africa.

Boycotts and social media

While boycotts obviously came about long before the days of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the rise of social media has influenced both who can start boycotts and how they’re carried out.

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting last February, actress Alyssa Milano and others called for a one-day boycott of companies who had not severed ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA), which included FedEx, Apple TV and Amazon.

When Nike recently launched its ad campaign highlighting Colin Kaepernick’s activism against police brutality, critics on social media urged people to boycott Nike and destroy the Nike products they already owned.

Because so many people regularly use social media, calls for boycotts can gain momentum much more quickly today than in the past. In a 2017 New York Times article, Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, points out that the speed of the Internet also means that “memory fades fast.” Although boycotts can quickly gain mass media attention, Reed writes, “the hourly nature of the news cycle can bury it within the next day or week.”

What contributes to success or failure?

While many of us can point to one or two high-level boycott success stories, the truth is that most boycotts don’t result in any change. In his research, Brayden King, a professor and department chair at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tells Kellogg Insight that two key factors to consider are the vulnerability of the company’s reputation when a boycott is launched and the media attention the boycott generates. “A lot of research in the past has shown that [boycotts] don’t necessarily affect their targets’ bottom lines that much. And it’s not clear that boycotts affect consumer behavior very much. But those boycotts that get some level of media attention are relatively successful in terms of getting some sort of concession out of their targets,” King says.

As a former organizer for workers’ rights, I believe that one factor missing from many of today’s boycotts is a carefully planned long-term strategy. Guidance from organizations that can devote staff time and mobilize volunteers to support and grow a boycott is also critical. In a 2015 Guardian article, Brendon Steele, director of stakeholder engagement at the nonprofit Future 500, says that strategic boycotts need both “carrots” and “sticks.” “Smart campaigners,” Steele says, “combine boycotts with carrots such as brand promotion if a company makes a change, and other types of sticks if it does not, such as targeted protests, social media campaigns and brandjacking.”

Discerning whether to participate

With calls for numerous boycotts swirling at any given time, it can be challenging for Christians to know if and when they should decide to participate. The following questions may help people of faith in their discernment process:

  • Is this boycott being called because of marginalized people facing mistreatment or injustice? Scripture frequently calls us to pay attention to how people with the fewest rights in society are treated. Workers are to be paid fairly and promptly for their labor. 
  • If the boycott is related to a workers’ rights issue, do workers themselves support the boycott? Boycotts can be a way to empower workers in their search for justice, but only if they take the lead in organizing the boycott. 
  • Is there a longterm plan in place to sustain and grow the boycott over time? Are there organizations that will guide the boycott, or is it only individuals on social media calling for it? Have there been efforts to press this company to change prior to the boycott? 
  • Am I willing to make long-term changes regarding where I shop or the products I buy? Am I willing to reach out to others and ask them to join me in this boycott? 
  • Are faith leaders involved in the boycott? What reasons do they share for their involvement?

When people of faith do commit to boycotting a company, we must be prepared for change to take a long time to achieve. As César Chávez reportedly once said, “When you are a worker for justice, you can’t be a sprinter, but you must be a long distance runner.”

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