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Are Economic Boycotts a More Effective Way to Create Change?

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Table of Contents  
  1. Boycotting: A History
  2. Economic Boycotts
  3. Divestment Boycotts
  4. Are These Boycotts Effective?

Now that your vote counts for so little, people are turning to economic boycotting to influence corporate and political policy. But does it work?

When Indiana governor Mike Pence decided to once again put the Republican party on the wrong side of history with the signing of the venomous religious freedom law, the hue and cry were swift.

There were two kinds of protests. The good old-fashioned grassroots kind where people hold a rally to voice their displeasure and the economic kind. Angie’s List threatened to scrap a $40 million dollar expansion of their Indianapolis headquarters.

The NCAA may stop holding the Final Four there. Gen Con, a $50 million dollar gaming convention that brought 56,000 people to their Indiana convention last year has threatened to move. So the head of Indy’s Visitors and Convention Bureau must be breathing into a paper bag about now.

And that was only the tip of the enormous iceberg this ludicrous idiot steered right into. Everyone from big tech to big pharma voiced their displeasure. I was born in Indiana and I can tell you that if he loses them the NCAA tournament, even the most bible banging gay haters will be pissed because as much as they hate gays, they love basketball more.

Since America is now a plutocracy and your vote at the polls doesn’t mean much, are economic boycotts a more effective way to create change?

Boycotting: A History

 “A boycott is an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for social or political reasons.”

Perhaps the world’s oldest boycott was imagined by Aristophanes when he wrote Lysistrata. Tired of the endless Pelopennisian war, Lysistrata convinces the women of Athens to barricade themselves in the Acropolis thereby denying their husbands sex until they negotiated peace with Sparta.

The term though originated at the time of the Irish Land War in the late 19th century. Captain Charles Boycott was a land agent who was shunned after refusing to negotiate with tenants. The entire town stopped doing business with him eventually driving him out of town.

By the end of 1880, British newspapers were using the word boycott not as a person’s name but as we use it today, to describe a method of protest.

Economic Boycotts

An economic boycott can mean consumers refusing to buy a certain product or to do business with a certain company. Perhaps the most famous and one of the most effective boycotts in American history falls into this category.

In 1955 Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The bus company lost 65% of their income and the boycott was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The small act of defiance and the boycott that followed eventually led to the Supreme Court declaring that Alabama and Montgomery’s laws requiring segregated buses was unconstitutional.

In 1986 the International Marine Mammal Project began a campaign to make people aware of tuna fishing practices that were killing dolphins. Yellowfin tuna school beneath dolphins, so fishing boats would find a pod of dolphins and scoop them up along with the tuna, killing them.

Four years later, the three biggest tuna companies agreed to stop selling tuna caught using the dolphin scooping method. That means that now, 90% of the tuna sold in the US is caught using methods that don’t harm dolphins. Still sucks if you’re a tuna. They have their revenge though because tasty as they are, they are loaded with mercury!

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Divestment Boycotts

A divestment boycott is, “… the use of a concerted economic boycott to pressure a government, industry, or company towards a change in policy, or in the case of governments, even regime change.”

The downfall of South Africa’s apartheid government is perhaps the most famous example of using divestment to enact change. Public and corporate pressure to end investments there started on college campuses in the 1960’s. Students pressured their universities to divest stock in companies that did business in South Africa.

The movement was slow to start but had a massive economic impact when it caught on. Between 1985-1990, 200 US companies cut all ties to South Africa. It cost the country a billion dollars in American investments.

The pressure was effective. The government first dropped segregation laws. Eventually black and other non-caucasian residents were given the right to vote. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president.

The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement (BDSM, careful if you’re going to google that at work) was started in 2005 by the Palestinian Civil Society. It calls for economic sanctions against Israel to force the end of the occupation of Palestinian land, to gain full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Are These Boycotts Effective?

They certainly can be. In the few days since I started writing this, Mike Pence has been in the line of fire. He blinked and has revised the bill.

Arkansas was about to legistlate a similar bill. Even Walmart, hardly a company that usually finds themselves on the correct side of the moral divide, called foul. Governor Asa Hutchinson refused to sign the bill until it was revised. It was and he signed it on April 2.

The BDS Movement has seen some success. The movement is still more or less in it’s infancy, just ten years old. It took nearly twenty years before economic pressures built enough to help bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.

I think the most heartening thing about any economic boycott is that while it seems as though voting at the polls has little influence, these kinds of campaigns do make a difference. If you want to see real change, get between government and money.

The change in Indiana was so fast as to induce whiplash. The law didn’t even have time to go into effect before it was revised.

Unhappily, it shows you whom politicians really listen to. I’m happy to see people, just regular people, protesting in front of government buildings as they did in Indiana. But it wasn’t until corporate America added their voice and threatened to close their wallets, that anything actually happened.

So, as much as a pain in the ass it is to check Human Rights Watch’s Hot 100 list every time you want to buy something, it is one of the best ways to make a difference. And from a personal finance perspective, since there will not be much left to buy, you’ll save money while saving the world!

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Candice Elliott - Senior Editor Candice Elliott is a substantial contributor to Listen Money Matters. She has been a personal finance writer since 2013 and has written extensively on student loan debt, investing, and credit. She has successfully navigated these areas in her own life and knows how to help others do the same. Candice has answered thousands of questions from the LMM community and spent countless hours doing research for hundreds of personal finance articles. She happily calls New Orleans, Louisiana home-the most fun city in the world.

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