A stepping stone to systemic change

Examining how boycotting companies can affect our society

In a consumer culture, branding is invaluable. On many occasions, activists and general consumers have attempted to use this fact to influence the actions of companies both small and large. Though most of the time the strategy of boycotting is ineffective—maybe because not enough people get on board, or they lose interest too quickly––sometimes these forms of protest have a real economic and social impact. But is it one that lasts? Is it one that can inflict real social and cultural change?

To begin to answer that question, I’ll look at what happens when boycotts occur at a local level. In a community, there is a close connection between individual members, such as business owners and their customers, and reputation means everything. An example of this in Montreal is the case of TRH bar (Trash Bar).

Earlier this year, a fundraising party was held for a former bouncer who was convicted on three counts of sexual assault and sentenced to 18 months in prison. People were outraged by this; the bar lost a lot of its customer base and received over 1000 one-star ratings, according to Eater Montreal. All of this resulted in the bar issuing an apology, doubling the fundraising money, and donating it all to an organization that helps victims of sexual assault, rather than giving it to Steve Bouchard, the perpetrator of the assault.

An example of a boycott on a corporate level is Nestle. For years, people have been trying to bring this company down for reasons ranging from child labour and depriving communities of drinking water (which is conveniently bottled and sold back to them), to copious environmental pollution, price fixing, mislabeling, and much more (a comprehensive list can be found at There have been countless documentaries and boycotting campaigns against Nestle, but the company has survived all of it without facing significant consequences. But the problem here is more about the workings of capitalism than Nestle. After all, Nestle may stand out as a bad company, but they are by no means an anomaly. I believe this is a problem that needs to be solved by a systemic change that takes power away from major corporations.

On the other hand, even if boycotting campaigns against Nestle aren’t effective in bringing the company down, they can still alert people to the way our society operates, and perhaps lead them to question their moral values and become politically active. In other words, even if Nestle doesn’t fall or change their behaviour because of individual boycotting strategies, those strategies may nonetheless influence more people and more powerful players to take up the cause.

What that may look like is exemplified in the global boycott of South Africa, during the apartheid regime. Many countries and corporations refused to do business with South Africa until they ended their system of radical racial segregation in 1994. While many experts have pointed out that this success of a large-scale boycott was an exception, not the rule, it is still an example of what a boycott looks like when powerful players take part.

Boycotters often have specific, singular goals. Sometimes they achieve those goals, and sometimes they don’t—which is usually dependent on the size of their target and the level of power held by the groups that take part in the campaign.

Something that is present in every boycott case is a questioning of moral values—people deciding where they stand on particular issues, what they will and won’t put up with—which contributes to changing cultural values as a whole. I believe the immediate demands of boycotts are not an end in themselves, but rather a stepping stone to a systemic shift toward a society made up of participants who act morally because they want to, not to maintain profits.

Graphic by Ana Bilokin


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