25 Biggest Retail Boycotts of All Time
In the face of widespread injustices, ordinary people can often feel powerless to effect positive change through their individual actions. That's where community organizing tactics like labor strikes and consumer boycotts can come in. In the latter case, citizen groups apply economic pressure against organizations perpetuating injustices by refusing to buy their products or services. Many such boycotts fizzle out with little effect, while others have achieved results whether by stopping the problematic behavior or simply calling attention to an underlying issue. These are some of the most impactful boycotts throughout history, some long gone and others still ongoing.
In 1774, the First Continental Congress created the Continental Association to implement a trade boycott and tea ban against Great Britain in protest of the Intolerable Acts, which punished Massachusetts colonists for their defiance at the Boston Tea Party. As the association used intimidation tactics to enforce the boycott among uncooperative merchants, trade with Britain fell sharply, leading to the retaliatory New England Restraining Act and later the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
Charles Boycott was an English land agent in Ireland whose social and economic ostracism by local activists was so effective that his name became the term by which we describe such community organizing efforts. In 1880, tenants resisted Boycott's attempted evictions, his employees ceased their labor, and local shops refused to serve him, so Boycott left the nation later that year.
Chinese immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century U.S. were routinely targeted by exclusionary laws, riots, and unfair labor practices, so their former countrymen at the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce responded in 1905 by proclaiming a boycott on American goods. The movement spread to merchants and artists in most Chinese cities before petering out in early 1906 due to hostility by the government, which feared the nationalist demonstrations could turn revolutionary.
After Adolf Hitler's appointment as German chancellor, his Nazi Party launched a boycotting and propaganda campaign against Jewish-owned businesses, so in March 1933, international critics in the U.S. and Europe responded with their own boycott of German goods that continued until America's entrance into World War II more than eight years later — though it did little to halt state-sanctioned violence against the Jewish minority in Germany.
One of the most famous examples of successful boycotting comes from the early Civil Rights era, when in 1955 Claudette Colvin and later Rosa Parks sparked an anti-discrimination crusade by sitting in the whites-only section of city buses. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined, and other civil rights leaders joined the cause before the strike ended in December 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses in violation of the 14th Amendment.
In 1965, a committee of predominantly Filipino farm workers walked off grape farms in the Delano, California, area to demand wages equal to the federal minimum requirement. They were joined by and subsequently merged with a Mexican-American union led by Cesar Chavez to form the United Farm Workers, which used consumer boycotts of grapes and nonviolent resistance to call attention to immigrant workers' rights and reach a collective bargaining agreement with growers.
In 1977, the Minneapolis-based Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT) began a boycott against Swiss-based Nestle after its aggressively marketed baby formula was linked to increased infant mortality in developing countries. The boycott was officially suspended in 1984 when Nestle agreed to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, but subsequent ones are still ongoing in 2018 due to the company's repeated violations and misleading marketing claims.
Boycotting played a major part in ending the South African system of racial segregation known as apartheid. The decades-long attempts to institute change through economic pressure spread to many industries and international communities, with academics, artists, actors, and sporting companies declining to support or host events in the nation. In 1986, Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan's veto to enact a ban on all South African imports in the U.S. Four years later, South Africa's ban on the African National Congress, an anti-apartheid organization, was lifted, and all political prisoners freed.
Domino's Pizza itself never donated money to pro-life causes, but its staunchly Catholic founder Tom Monaghan certainly has, even financing a referendum drive to end Medicaid-funded abortion treatments in 1989. The 400-chapter National Organization for Women launched a boycott in response causing a temporary drop in sales near college campuses and announcement that Monaghan had stopped make the controversial donations.
Liverpool sports fans have been boycotting The Sun for nearly 30 years, ever since the U.K. tabloid covered the 1989 Hillsborough disaster — a trampling incident at a football game resulting in 96 fatalities — by incorrectly reporting that Liverpool FC fans had pickpocketed the dead and urinated on police. Despite The Sun's halfhearted apologies for its misreporting in 2004 and later 2011, many Liverpudlians still refuse to support the publication and publicly oppose its sales at Hillsborough memorial events.
Nike became the world's best-selling footwear brand in part because it encouraged subcontractors to operate in nations with subpar, "sweatshop"-type labor practices, freeing up cash to spend on aggressive marketing. Activist Jeff Ballinger drew attention to these labor abuses with exposés in 1991 and '92, which led to consumer boycotts, campus protests, and repeated controversies for the company until 1998, when then-CEO Phil Knight committed to correcting the worst of its practices, starting by raising the minimum age of workers. Some of Nike's questionable labor practices still continue today, however, so there are occasionally renewed calls for action against the company.
In the 21st century alone, there have been many efforts to boycott Chinese goods for many reasons, ranging from the Chinese occupation of Tibet and border disputes with India to its products' perceived low-quality and poor safety standards. However, it's not so easy to avoid relying on made-in-China manufacturing imports, and the efforts have failed to cease the populous nation's economic growth.
In 1997, a 100-campus boycott against Pepsi — using tactics modeled after South Africa's anti-apartheid movement — succeeded in getting the soft drink company to withdraw all of its brands and business dealings from military-controlled Myanmar. Organizers also tried persuading other U.S. companies to pull their support of the nation with less success. Eventually, Pepsi — and Coke — returned to the country formerly known as Burma when sanctions were eased.
Abercrombie & Fitch has been subject to boycotts due to occasionally insensitive shirt designs, including one in 2002 bearing the text, "Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White," which was discontinued after protests by Asian-American students at Stanford. In 2005, the retailer's misogynistic shirt slogans like "Who needs brains when you have these?" sparked a "girlcott" by the Allegheny County Girls as Grantmakers that led the company to recall the designs, issue an apology, and even meet with the organizers to discuss alternate designs.
In 2005, the Ford Motor Co. came under threat of a boycott by the American Family Association concerning its advertisements in LGBT-targeted publications. The automaker first agreed to all but eliminate these ads, then reversed course after an opposing wave of criticism from gay rights groups, announcing plans less than two weeks later to keep the ads and broaden company relations with gay consumers.
In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran 12 humorous cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, an act considered blasphemous by most Muslims. The publication turned the small European nation into a lightning rod of controversy with Muslim-majority nations like Saudi Arabia and Libya recalling their ambassadors and instigating widespread boycotts of Danish goods. A swift decline in trade with the Middle East caused Denmark's total exports to shrink by 15.5 percent within four months.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement is a global boycott campaign against Israel, specifically protesting its occupation and treatment of Palestinian citizens within the West Bank. Since the campaign's start in 2005, it's targeted military partners and businesses profiting from the Israeli occupation such as Volvo, Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, Coca-Cola and Caterpillar. BDS has many high-profile supporters, but it's debatable whether their efforts have made any significant impact on Israel's economy and occupation policies.
This one-day event on May Day 2006 saw thousands of immigrants boycott U.S. businesses and protest in the streets of major cities for immigration reform and amnesty for illegal aliens. Mexico and other Latin American countries showed solidarity with their coinciding "Day Without Gringos" boycott, which reportedly had little effect on the U.S. economy. The protests at home seemed to galvanize anti-immigrant sentiment among conservatives, prompting President George W. Bush to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the nation's southern border two weeks later.
In 2010, The Advocate reported this Georgia-based chicken sandwich chain had donated $2 million to anti-gay rights groups through its charitable WinShape Foundation — or, as Chick-fil-A's founder put it in 2012, backing "the biblical definition of the family unit." University students and LGBT advocates in many cities have opposed Chick-fil-A franchise openings new and lobbied for the removal of existing locations to this day.
In 2013 and 2014, Ukrainian activists organized nonviolent resistance efforts including a trade boycott against Russia to protest the neighboring superpower's repeated military interventions and economic plundering in the region. The boycott spread to neighboring Poland and Lithuania and caused a 35 percent to 50 percent reduction in sales of Russian goods in Ukraine in 2014.
Passed in 2016, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, commonly known as HB2 or "the bathroom bill," met with immediate criticism for blocking localities' protections of LGBT communities and requiring transgenders to use public restrooms corresponding with the sex they were at birth. In response, many cities, counties, and states banned official travel to North Carolina, while entertainment and athletic companies such as Lionsgate and the NBA canceled events within the state's borders, resulting in a net loss of $3.76 billion and the repeal of the bathroom provision in March 2017.
This social media hashtag has become an umbrella term for the ongoing boycotts against companies owned by or affiliated with President Donald Trump, launched in October 2016 after the release of an Access Hollywood tape that heard the then-candidate boasting about sexual harassment. The #GrabYourWallet campaign led to 18 companies removing Trump-branded products from stores in the following months, and the ouster of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick over the ridesharing company's surge pricing during the "Muslim ban" protests at U.S. airports in 2017.
This boycott was both unique and short-lived precisely because it got results. When Disney banned Los Angeles Times critics from film screenings due to critical coverage on Disneyland's influence in Anaheim politics, film critics, unions, and media outlets like The A.V. Club showed solidarity by agreeing to skip Disney's screenings until the Times ban was lifted. It was on Nov. 7, 2017, shortly after The New York Times joined the boycott.
The shooting that killed 17 people this past February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — and subsequent activism by student survivors — briefly reinvigorated America's debate on gun control, manifesting in a boycott of the NRA and calls for affiliated companies to sever their ties. More than a dozen companies did so within two weeks of the shooting, and the pro-gun lobbying group is now in a self-professed financial crisis due to what they describe as blacklisting by New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Since its inception, the online retailing giant Amazon has repeatedly come under fire for its endangerment of bricks-and-mortar competitors, tax evasion, and subpar working conditions, among other things. In 2018, nearly 1,800 Amazon employees in Spain walked out and called for a general European strike and social media-enabled international boycott through the company's promotional Prime Day in the second week of July. Amazon nonetheless made roughly $3 billion in sales and added more Prime members than on any other day.
Cheapism.com participates in affiliate marketing programs, which means we may earn a commission if you choose to purchase a product through a link on our site. This helps support our work and does not influence editorial content.