We are regularly told that our power as citizens lies with our choices as consumers. Often we are identified as consumers first and citizens second. It is thus no surprise that boycotts tap into our cultural programming and trigger our associations with power. What we buy, we are told, controls what will be. The “demand” side of “supply and demand” is the shaper of our society. I’m sure we’ve all heard the quote, “buy the change you want to see in the world.” Or something like that.
Certainly boycotts have sometimes been a major tool for achieving social change. In the 1980s in South Africa, black citizens boycotted white-owned businesses in the provinces and towns around Johannesburg and forced major concessions from the Apartheid regime. In the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama, a boycott by black citizens led to the de-segregation of public transportation and made an indelible mark on American society.
There is also no denying that boycotts poorly framed and executed can lead to no change whatsoever. When a boycott is the wrong tool for the job, the actual effect can be negative—to require huge amounts of effort on the part of the participants, draining their time and energy, while having no real effect on the corporation or the regime being targeted. This sort of boycott is like a drum circle at a protest: it might make the participants feel good, but it does nothing tangible for the cause. At least the drummers are still part of the protest—an ineffective boycott is as good as invisible.
When I was growing up, there were calls in my church for Christians to boycott things made in China because the Chinese government was imprisoning Chinese Christians. We were given to understand that this was supposed to be a national action. Since freedom from religious persecution is a fundamental ideal in the United States, one might also be forgiven for thinking this boycott could be effective.
To sort out what helps a boycott succeed or fail, let’s compare the Christian China boycott, which I think representative of the sort of minor boycotts socially-minded people regularly call for, to the two boycotts I mentioned above, which I think representative of the most effective a boycott can be. Further, I will limit the comparison to a few critical points: leverage, simplicity, participation, and strategic goals.
In the case of the South Africa boycott, the targeted stores were owned by white businessmen, but they sold many of the goods to the black South African community. The Christmas season was approaching, and they had substantial assets tied up in their stock. The store’s white owners also had greater influence on the Apartheid government. Therefore, the boycott participants could indirectly leverage the government by leveraging the businesses.
In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, the black community made up a nearly 75% of the ridership. The bus system relied on fares to function, so publicly threatening the bus system put pressure on the city as a whole. Therefore, the boycott participants had substantial leverage.
In the case of the Christian China boycott, the majority of Chinese goods are sold to diverse manufacturers, countries, communities, and individuals. The Christian community has little influence on most of these. The Christian community therefore has reduced leverage on the Chinese government; even if every Christian in the United States avoided personal purchase of Chinese products, it would account for a very small percentage of the Chinese GDP.
In the case of the South Africa boycott, the actual practice of the boycott was simple: don’t buy anything from the white-owned stores.
In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, again, the actual task was simple: don’t ride the bus.
In the case of the Christian China boycott, the actual task of checking every product to ensure that none of its components are made in China is time-consuming and places a small but repeated burden on the participants.
In the case of the South Africa boycott, not buying anything from the local shops was a major hardship for participants. The organizers wisely agreed to a suspension of the boycott as Christmas approached to allow for negotiation with the Apartheid government. When those negotiations failed, the participants were refreshed and ready to resume the boycott. Without collaboration and careful organization, it would have been very difficult to maintain, but with strong community support they achieved nearly 100% participation.
In the case of the Montgomery Bus boycott, black citizens had to find other routes to work and other means of transportation. Again, without careful organizing and community support, it would have been an impossible hardship. With the leadership and support of local pastors and organizers, though, the black community achieved nearly 100% participation.
In the case of the Christian China boycott, American citizens have a variety of choices available and can easily choose to buy nothing or to buy a product from another country rather than purchasing Chinese products. In theory, participation should have been easy—but without collective organizing to motivate participation, the boycott never really got off the ground.
In the case of the South Africa boycott, the participants had clear demands for their targets—to allow blacks access to public facilities, to withdraw troops from provinces, to end discrimination in the workplace, and to release political prisoners. Their requests were well within the target’s capability. In fact, the government made concessions to end the boycott. It is important to note that the black leadership did not call for an end to Apartheid with the boycott in question, instead focusing on “quality of life” demands. The end of Apartheid came under pressure from a wide variety of actions and strategies, of which boycotts were only one part.
In the case of Montgomery Bus boycott, the participants also had a clear message for the target—to de-segregate the busses—which was also within the target’s ability to grant. The demand was complicated by social pressures against it, but the participants achieved enough leverage to outweigh those pressures.
In the case of the Christian China boycott, the participants had a vague message without concrete benchmarks—to end persecution of Chinese Christians—which left the boycott with no defined end point. The request was complicated because what little leverage the participants exerted was on American businesses, while the main target was actually Chinese government policies.
Summing Up the Comparison
By and large, effective boycotts:
- Have a group of participants who have substantial leverage, such as the majority of the customers for a company or service.
- Have a simple and specific task for participants.
- Have strong community organizing to recruit high participation and support the people taking action.
- Have a clear message with a clear, measurable action called for from the target.
The South Africa and Montgomery Bus boycotts are both examples that met all these criteria. The Christian China boycott, by contrast, met none of them. I will add the caveat that boycotts also work best as part of a diverse portfolio of tactics, especially in cases like Montgomery and South Africa where major social change is part of the goal, but the Christian China boycott fails in that regard as well.
Too often, I think, calls for boycotts tend towards the model of the Christian China boycott rather than the South Africa or Montgomery Bus boycotts. Thousands of calls for boycotts exist, many with no clear demands for the target, most with no organizing for participants, and a great many suggesting that you boycott diverse corporations or groups of corporations and all of their holdings while putting the burden on you to figure out which products you are still allowed to buy.
We all have a finite capacity for social involvement, and it is incumbent on us not to expend that capacity uselessly. Boycotts are a popular way to feel like you are doing something, but their actual impact is variable and often nonexistent. My suggestion, then, is that if you are joining a boycott to assuage you conscience, don’t have any illusions about it. If you are joining a boycott to achieve broader social progress, though, choose wisely.