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What is a boycott?

Boycotts can be a useful tool for consumers to exercise their democratic rights. So what is a boycott, are boycotts useful, and when are they ethical?

There are many reasons why we might want to avoid some corporations, from tax dodging to human rights violations.

In this article, we take a look at some famous examples of boycott calls, as well as exploring the thorny question of whether and when we should be boycotting.

What does boycott mean?

A boycott generally involves pledging not to buy from a company, based on a specific ethical issue.

In the past, boycotts have been called against cosmetics brand L’Oreal over its animal testing policy, Barclays Bank over its investments in fossil fuels, and online giant Amazon over its egregious tax avoidance, amongst many others.

It can also involve withdrawing social support from an institution: for example, academics might refuse to speak at a certain university based on its actions, or prize winners refuse to accept an award at a specific event.

For example, in July 2023, a host of nominees and judges for the British LGBT Awards, including comedian Joe Lycett and drag artist Divina de Campo, withdrew from the prize-giving after fossil fuel giants Shell and BP were accepted as sponsors. The prize was forced to make a U-turn, dropping their sponsorship overnight.

Boycotts can emerge as a grassroots effort online, but more often they are called by a specific campaign group that asks consumers to pledge support.

Do boycotts work?

Boycotts have seen some big successes in the past.

In December 2018, HSBC bank divested from Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit Systems – known for selling weapons to the Israeli military used in attacks on Palestinian civilians. More than 24,000 supporters of human rights advocacy group War on Want emailed the bank asking it to end its investments.

Clothing company Canada Goose announced it would stop selling fur by the end of 2021, following boycotts led by animal rights group Peta.

In 2021, beer company Kirin ended its joint operations with the Myanmar military, after a boycott called by The International Campaign for the Rohingya (IRC). The call was in response to the military’s ethnic cleansing of thousands of Muslim-minority Rohingya people.

South Africa Boycott

Perhaps the most famous boycott was against South Africa in opposition to the apartheid.

South African exiles and their supporters called for a boycott of products from the country in 1959 – in protest against the racial segregation enforced by white colonial politicians and discrimination and violence against Black people in the country.

The boycott initially focused on fruit and vegetables, but later targeted chains like Marks & Spencer and Next – causing some companies to pull South African products from their shelves. For the next 35 years, the boycott was a central part of the anti-apartheid campaign.

After decades of grassroots organising – as well as pressure from international leaders – apartheid was ended in 1994.

The threat of a boycott

Sometimes, even the threat of a boycott can be enough to force a u-turn.

In November 2017, Boots dropped the price of its own-brand emergency contraceptive pill, which cost much more than at other retailers, after the British Pregnancy Advisory Service threatened to call a boycott of the company. Boots had previously said that it would not drop the price because it did not “want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use.”

Even where a boycott doesn’t directly force a change it can play a crucial role in showing solidarity and removing a company’s social license. It can be an effective way to vocally condemn malpractice and spread awareness about the harm a company may be causing.

Consumers have boycotted Nestlé since the 1970s for its irresponsible marketing of baby milk formula. The company continues to be accused of contributing to babies’ death and suffering through its marketing practices to this day. Nonetheless, the boycott has helped raise awareness about the dangers of irresponsible marketing of baby milk, and has tainted Nestlé’s name in many countries.

Our article 'History of successful boycotts' has an up-to-date record of boycott successes.

Consumer boycotts

Are boycotts ethical?

Boycotts can be a powerful tool and way to exercise our democratic voice. But experts say they should also be approached with care.

It is possible for boycotts to backfire, and harm the very people they aim to support. Boycotts can exacerbate poor working and living conditions, poverty and even forced labour. Experts warn that boycotts may also displace issues elsewhere. For example, campaigners say that if consumers boycott products made in China, where many workers face sweatshop conditions, brands may just move manufacturing to a country like Sri Lanka, where the average factory wage is $0.50 an hour.

Avoiding regressive boycotts

Of course, boycotts can also be called for less than progressive reasons, and in the past have been a way to enforce bigoted views on topics like gender and sexuality, particularly in the US. Anti-trans campaigners have threatened to boycott brands like Maybelline and Bud Light for partnering with trans influencers.

Ethical Consumer lists all boycotts we consider to be progressive on our website.

When to boycott a company?

It's important for boycotts to be well thought through and targeted to a specific issue. There are a couple of questions we like to think about at Ethical Consumer when considering a boycott call:

1. Who has made the boycott call?

The strongest calls come from those who are most affected by the issue at hand, particularly when considering human rights. For example, campaign groups in Myanmar have led calls against companies complicit with the military, and leaders of Ukraine led calls for a boycott of Russian products.

2. Are there likely to be unintended consequences?

Many boycott calls will have a knock-on effect. It’s worth thinking about how severe these will be and who they will impact. Sometimes it may affect those you wish to support, for example a specific group of workers may lose their jobs as a result. Check what they have to say about the call: do they support it anyway? This is a good indication of how local people see the trade off between potential consequences and a status quo that may be causing enormous harm.

Sometimes the need for action will outweigh any unintended impacts. For example, civilians in Russia are likely to have been affected by the boycott calls, and may have faced job losses. But in the case of such egregious whole state aggression, the consensus says boycotting is a legitimate action.

We discuss some more thorny questions about when to boycott in our articles on China and Myanmar.

Which companies should I boycott?

Ethical Consumer maintains an up-to-date list of current progressive boycott calls.

The list includes detailed information about the target of the boycott, the reason for it and the organisation behind the call – so you can make your own choices about which to follow.

Our magazine also includes updates about new boycotts and actions taken by and successes for long-running calls. Subscribers receive the magazine directly. You can sign up to our weekly newsletter and receive a free digital copy of a previous issue.

If you know of a boycott call that is missing from our list, please get in touch.

How do I avoid companies which are facing boycott calls?

It can be tricky to keep up to date with all live boycott calls. Ethical Consumer’s shopping guides always highlight any companies facing a boycott and list ethical alternatives to them.

As part of our ethical and environmental ratings, we also consider any boycott calls. Brands lose half a mark if they face a boycott call, and a whole mark is the entire company faces one. boycott

Ethical Consumer has called for a boycott of Amazon since 2012 over its outrageous tax avoidance.

In 2021, up to half a billion pounds (£500,000,000) may have been lost to the UK public purse from the corporation tax avoidance of Amazon alone. This amount could have paid for:

  • a £500 payment to the poorest one million UK households to help with rising fuel bills, or
  • raising the much criticised 'up to' 3% proposed pay rises for health service staff in 2022 by an additional 1%, or
  • a £10,000 investment in insulating the homes of 50,000 pensioners in the worst fuel poverty, which could also reduce UK CO2 emissions by around 100,000 tonnes

As well as avoiding tax, the company has been accused of multiple workers’ rights abuses, racial discrimination in its facial recognition software and collaborations with the US police, and of pricing smaller retailers out of business.

Our ethical shopping guides such as bookshops and online retailers can help you to avoid Amazon by finding more ethical options.

We also have a summary guide to ethical alternatives to Amazon.

Read more on our Boycott Amazon page or watch a couple of short videos about how to avoid Amazon, and why.

Ethical Consumer videos:

Video with three tips on how to avoid Amazon.

Video series on boycotts

We have a series of boycott videos on our YouTube channel. These include discussing boycotts of brands, countries, ingredients and industries.