Originally written for neofeminism.org in 1997.

Boycotts have been in the news lately, with the American Family Association, Southern Baptists, and other conservative groups boycotting Disney. Most of the news attention to their boycott has focused on merely announcing that they're boycotting, and announcing that Disney's profits have actually gone up during the boycott; apparently, the old adage that any publicity is good publicity still holds.

But journalists who take this approach are jumping the gun in judging the boycott's effectiveness. Todd Putnam, who edited the now-defunct National Boycott News, says that "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." The Disney boycotts began last year, and conservative groups are still jumping on the bandwagon as they see more media attention directed towards the boycott. Even if Disney's sales never go down, the amount of media attention the boycotters have received means that their position has been broadcast to the whole country. A counter-boycott announced by various religious groups, by comparison, hardly made the news at all.

Every dollar you spend is a vote for the product you buy with it, but it is also a vote for the company producing it, the company's politics, their advertising, their method of manufacturing, and the way they treat their workers. We're taught to think that our votes don't count in a society of millions upon millions of other voters, but in fact each of us has tremendous power to change the world around us. By becoming aware of the policies and politics of different companies, we can choose to give power to the ones that respect the earth, donate money to organizations we support, treat their employees the way we would want to be treated.

Such information is not terribly difficult to come by; many companies boast upon their packages that their product was made without cruelty to animals, or that the packaging is 100% post-consumer recycled paper. Once we've seen one such label, it throws similar products into question. Does the next brand of potato chip on the shelf also boast of the money it donates to literacy campaigns? Does the next package of cookies seem to contain way more unnecessary packaging than this one does? There are also many sites online and many magazines available which will provide information to you about different companies' friendly or unfriendly practices, and notify you when some product is dangerously full of shimmering displays of artificial perfection.

The flip side of this tremendous power each consumer has to support a company is our power to stop a company's abuses in their tracks. Instead of simply buying the products we support, we can focus our dislike of other products into a very powerful activist tool: the boycott. A nationwide survey (Friedman, 1991) found that, of different consumer techniques, business leaders considered boycotts to be more effective than letter writing campaigns, lobbying, or even class action suits. A boycott may include any of those techniques, but those actions by themselves lack one important element: they don't attack sales. Money is the most important thing in the world to a company or any organization you may want to boycott. They can fight you in court, ignore your letters, or wave away your lobbying, but when their sales start to drop, they have to do something about it. It forces them to notice you.

The Boycott Action News says that "Boycotts are an effective way to put your money where your values are.... Boycotts are a tool for holding corporations accountable for actions against workers, consumers, communities, minorities, animals and the environment." So how do we go about doing that?

The Internet has the potential to make boycotts much easier to announce and gather support for... as long as you avoid tainting your action by spamming people. You can create a web page advertising your boycott and giving detailed information about it, create a graphic to let people link back to your site and advertise your boycott, and search for (or create) mailing lists that are relevant to your cause. It's important to submit your site to different search engines, but avoid the many people that offer to do that for you in exchange for your sweet, sweet money. You can also find sites similar to yours and email their owners, offering to link to their sites if they'll link to you. Spread the word among groups who will publicize you, and you can get results better than any search engine.

Just like any boycott, one begun online should be aware of the messages it's sending out and make sure it's organized well. Some important points to remember:

  • Be aware of what your goals are. Do you want to get the company to reverse its policies, or just make it aware of its opposition? Do you want a reply from the organization you're attacking, or would it be enough just to get media attention? Usually, your goals will depend on the size and strength of your group; if you're relatively small and unknown, or trying to create a grassroots boycott in your community, you may want to be satisfied with getting noticed and letting bigger groups take up your cause.

  • Do not buy the product. Usually boycotts are aimed against a business or corporation for its actions, so simply not buying the product may not be enough; you might choose to boycott everything made by that manufacturer, and tell them so. On the other hand, an effective and wide-ranging boycott of just one product can be easier for them to compare to their other sales, as long as you let them know why their sales have dropped.

  • Write a letter to the company explaining why (and that!) they're being boycotted. Email works as well, but physical letters and phone calls work best. If you are the boycott's organizer, or head of a group supporting the boycott, and want your letter or information packet to really be noticed, place it inside a box, inside another box, inside a third box, wrap nicely, and send to the company head. It will be noticed.

    Make sure to look as official as possible: do not use your own personal letterhead if you represent an organization or the boycott itself, and do not leave spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected. You want to be taken as seriously as possible. If you are not one of the boycott's organizers, send copies of your letter to them, and encourage others to do the same.

  • Find alternatives to the product or organization you're boycotting. Make sure you know exactly which companies and subsidiaries you need to avoid, and then do the necessary research to make sure that the alternatives aren't worthy of boycott themselves. For example, boycotting Exxon for their low environmental standards can be effective, but if you simply transfer your business to an oil company who is responsible for taking over other countries and murdering their opposition, or funding a war in Iraq and then taking their oil, your message becomes less clear, and you're still supporting the actions you wish to end.

  • Form alliances with other groups. Find out who might have similar bones to pick, and ask them to join you in a boycott. If you're boycotting someone for environmental reasons, you could contact the Rainforest Action Network, Earth First!, or Greenpeace; if you're boycotting a country or political group that's commited religious discrimination, contact other religious groups within and without your religious path, the ACLU or FIRE.

The Internet holds some interesting possibilities for action. You could start a chain letter informing consumers worldwide about the issues within your boycott. (Of course, then we'd all have to kill you.)You could make your site fun, with parodies of the boycotted company's commercials and games to play. You can contact a lot of people and corporations very quickly; all it costs you is time.
m_turner adds, "Consider also, Berkeley at one time boycotted almost every oil company for some reason or another... until they realized the only one that could sell gas in Berkeley was Exxon." I've experienced this myself; at one point I was doing this sort of research on various gas companies and realized that Exxon was one of the least offensive, at least as far as the information I could find on it went. I think that Exxon was just tainted forever for people by one really, really bad incident, whereas many other companies are lucky/powerful enough to stay out of the news... or maybe an oil spill is easier to cover than decades of corruption, pollution, and attempted genocide in far-away countries.

But I'm still afraid to buy gas from Exxon.