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To buy or not to buy: Does boycotting really work?

We’ve all seen groups calling for a boycott of a company, organisation or even a country on the grounds of a moral standing.

From Amazon’s tax avoidance to the involvement of Mauritius and Air France in providing monkeys to labs across Europe, there are a huge array of active boycotts going on right now. But how effective is boycotting at getting companies to do what the consumer wants? And what kind of impact does it have on the boycotted?

The background of boycotting

The first significant boycott in recorded history was called the Continental Association and came into effect in 1774 (though the term ‘boycott’ wasn’t coined until 1880 when Irish tenants ostracized British estate manager Charles Cunningham Boycott). The Continental Association was the American colonial boycott of trade with Great Britain. It didn’t work. At the time, British control of trade was too strong and the whole thing was essentially the catalyst to the American Revolution.

Fast forward through the next 200+ years and in the 21st century boycotting has taken on a very different practice and meaning. The ever greater expectation for companies to conduct their business ethically, combined with the immediacy of social media and the accountability of corporations to do right by their customers has led to continuing boycotts of such commercial giants as Amazon, Nike and Nestlé.

Let’s look at the Nestlé boycott as an example…

To summarise, in the 1970s and 80s a campaign was launched to boycott the brand, stating the main reason being the company’s “aggressive marketing” of breast milk substitutes in developing countries and amongst the poor where water isn’t suitably clean for mixture with the formula. The boycott has been on-again-off-again since then, with re-emergences of claims of similar practices still occurring. The difference now is that, partly due to the original boycotts, there are now much more stringent legislations in place to police how companies operate.

Does boycotting work?

Whether the boycott of Nestlé worked or not really depends on your perspective of an intended outcome. If the motivation behind the boycott was to use Nestlé as an example of how companies need to be held more accountable for their actions, then there has certainly been some form of success: Global organisations such as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, as well as many governments, spearheaded the creation of an international code of marketing that has done a lot of important work in protecting against manipulative or unethical advertising. But if the plan was to cripple the company, then it clearly didn’t work. Nestlé’s going strong, reporting stock value growth, and regularly buying up further companies.

This aspect of multifaceted conglomerate corporations and the unseen collaborative nature of business mergers makes the efforts of boycotters extremely difficult. Let’s stick with Nestlé for some examples: Nestlé owns over 2,000 brands including Shreddies, After Eight, Buxton and Vittel water, and they have a perpetual licence with Starbucks.

As another example; the ongoing boycott of the NRA in the US isn’t as simple as not buying guns or becoming a member. Unbeknownst to many, Amazon and Apple TV both broadcast the pro-gun streaming channel NRATV, meaning your Amazon subscription is indirectly supporting the NRA. So should your anti-gun views lead you to not use other, seemingly unrelated services? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you spend any amount of time trying to balance your beliefs versus what you buy, you’ll fall into a rabbit-hole of confusion, indecision and ethical conundrums.

Is there a solution?

Enter the concept of ‘buycotting’: The notion that instead of trying to deny your business to disliked companies, you should invest your time and energy (and money) in supporting the companies that uphold the principles you do agree with. It’s a seemingly subtle shift in consumer activism, but an important one.

Buycotting works on the principle of catching more flies with honey than vinegar. Instead of a combative and negative attitude towards companies that don’t uphold the same ethical values as you, you should positively support and encourage the ones that do. In theory this will have a long-term effect on the way that businesses operate, swaying the trend towards providing the services or products that are successfully growing due to popular demand. The reality might be that this is a glacial change, especially if you’re thinking about making big changes to corporate behemoths like Amazon.

There has been a recent influx of companies that promote themselves solely on their values and practices, incorporating campaigns like Buy One Get One or the expansion of veganism to beyond a dietary choice. Sites like offer free ethical overview scores for companies ranging from supermarkets and fashion retailers to banks and travel providers, while a paid membership will give you detailed breakdowns of how those scores are calculated.

What the future holds

Historic evidence would suggest that the biggest of businesses are going to be very slow in their ethical progression; with profits and demand remaining high, there is little real motivation for serious change in the short term. Like the American boycott failing horrendously against the British all those centuries ago, there are some dragons that are too big to slay. At least, not without a revolution.

Chances are that with enough change to the marketplace in general we’re likely to see the gradual eroding of the unethical practices that bring scrutiny to big corporations. It’s going to be slow progress, though, which can only really be accelerated by a greater number of smaller businesses offering what consumers want and consumers buying that instead of sticking with the easy, invariably less ethical options.

For pretty much everyone else – from high street stores to online start-ups – the prevailing consumer trend to support ethical businesses offers significant food for thought. Whether due to boycotting or buycotting, new businesses of any kind are going to want to be on the right side of the fence to continue building their clientele and reputation. After all, reputation is the cornerstone of keeping your business gleaming in the eyes of the consumer. The bottom line at the moment is very determinedly that ethical businesses and consumers are here to stay. So if you want to be a success in the future business world, you’re much better off getting on board early.


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