Boycotting means withholding money as an act of protest, usually by refusing to buy anything from a particular company, organisation or country. It aims to achieve a change of policy through economic pressure.

Prominent examples of boycotts include an international boycott of South African goods during apartheid and the more recent boycott of produce from Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. A boycott of Nestle over its controversial marketing of baby milk formula has been running since 1977. Since 2010, there has been a spate of boycotts against companies accused of tax avoidance, including Amazon, Starbucks and Vodafone.

The word “boycott” derives from Charles Boycott, a landlord’s agent in Ireland from whom tenants withheld their rents in 1880. However, the practice is much older. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw boycotts of slave-made products such as cotton and sugar. In the seventh century, the leaders of the Arabic town of Quraysh cut off trade with the Banu Hashim clan in an attempt to pressurise the clan to stop sheltering Muhammad.

Some people now use the word “boycott” very broadly, to refer to any decision to avoid a particular shop, product or business. However, avoidance is not the same as boycotting. You might avoid an unethical product because you don’t want to be involved in it, without publicising your reasons or looking for others who share the same view. You might regard a company as so unethical that no change of policy would lead it to gain your custom.

In contrast, a boycott is usually an organised attempt to achieve a specific change of policy by withholding money.

The Quaker writer Tim Gee views boycotts as a form of “economic counterpower” – using money to influence or resist those who appear to have more power but who are using it unjustly.

If you’re joining in a boycott as an individual or church – or starting a boycott from scratch – it may be worth asking yourself:

  • What change are you aiming to achieve? Why?
  • Is the company/organisation/country aware that you are boycotting it and why?
  • What are the chances of the boycott achieving this aim? What could make it more likely?
  • If the boycott has already begun, who began it and what were their reasons?
  • What other tactics might help to achieve this aim? Some of these – such as media activism – can work alongside boycotting. Others may be an alternative to it, particularly if they involve attempts to engage a company in discussion. If you are thinking of starting a new boycott, you may choose to try engagement first and turn to boycotting if the engagement is unsuccessful.
  • How will you publicise the boycott or your church’s/group’s participation in it?