Major boycotts that changed history

Written by:
February 11, 2019
Updated on February 15, 2019
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Major boycotts that changed history

While boycotts have occurred throughout history, the movement got its name in 1880. English land agent Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott raised the rent, inhumanely evicting his tenants in Ireland. The community joined together and refused to pay or work with him, eventually forcing him to leave. The "boycott" was born, and the idea took hold.

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The 13-month protest ended with the Supreme Court barring segregation on public buses. In the 1980s, when the United States and other countries refused to do business with or travel to South Africa, they eventually prompted an end to the apartheid that had separated black and whites there since 1948. Some boycotts exist to raise awareness of social issues, as well. Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, for example, Americans are called to participate in "Buy Nothing Day," an anti-consumerism campaign.

While some efforts change laws and others may only change minds, boycotts can be a powerful nonviolent way to make a difference. Using historical reports and news accounts, Stacker compiled a list of 30 influential boycotts.

Click through to see which organized movements have changed history.

You may also like: States with the most protests

Montgomery Bus Boycott

In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her act of civil disobedience launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 13-month protest during which black residents refused to ride city buses. The boycott was organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Improvement Association, which launched civil rights into the national spotlight. The Supreme Court ultimately outlawed segregation on public buses.

Delano Grape Strike

On Mexican Independence Day in 1965, Cesar Chavez and other Latino farm workers helped Filipino-American grape workers protest for better wages and working conditions in Delano, Calif. The Delano Grape Strike lasted until 1970, and prompted an international boycott. Their efforts led to the nation’s first farm workers union: the United Farm Workers of America. 

Nestle Co.

In 1977, the Infant Formula Action Coalition organized a boycott of Nestle Co. The company advertised its infant formula as "better than breast milk,” pushing this message harder in poorer countries. Complaints prompted a worldwide boycott that lasted nearly seven years, with Nestle spending about $100 million to fight the negative press. This led to new marketing rules set by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the boycott ended when Nestle agreed to comply with most of the standards concerning infant formula sales. The company faced accusations again in 2018 that it once more violated ethical marketing codes regarding its infant formulas, misleading customers with inaccurate nutritional claims.


1980 Summer Olympics

The Olympics may seem like an unusual thing to protest, which is probably why the United States has only done it once. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to send American athletes to the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow as a protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. More than 60 nations joined the U.S. The Soviet-Afghan War continued until 1989, and the Soviets led their own boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.



SeaWorld came under public scrutiny in 2013 after the release of the documentary "Blackfish,” which criticized marine parks for its practice of keeping orcas in captivity. The People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for boycotts of the park, and public attendance at SeaWorld decreased. In 2016, the marine park announced it would no longer breed or feature shows with orcas.


Sex boycotts for an end to violence

In 2003, Leymah Gbowee and other Liberian women went on a successful sex strike to end the country’s civil war. Gbowee won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. In 2006, female partners of gang members in Pereira, Colombia, withheld sex as they demanded fewer guns and less violence in their city. By 2010, Pereira’s murder rate had fallen by 26.5%.

Gandhi's Salt March

Mahatma Gandhi in 1930 led a 240-mile march in India to the Arabian Sea to protest Britain’s colonial salt laws, which didn’t allow Indians to process or sell their own salt. In front of thousands, Gandhi and his followers broke the law by evaporating seawater to make salt. He encouraged others to do the same. Gandhi reached an agreement with India’s British viceroy in 1931 in exchange for an end to the salt tax and the release of political prisoners. Colonial rule remained, but the act of civil disobedience stoked the fires of independence. In 1947, British rule ended and the country was divided into India and Pakistan.  

Anti-apartheid movement

To protest apartheid in South Africa, an international campaign against the oil company Royal Dutch Shell was launched in 1986. In America, there were nationwide calls from labor and civil rights groups asking the public not to buy gas from Shell stations. Because of the uprising of outrage over apartheid, Congress voted to override a veto by President Ronald Reagan on the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. This banned South African imports, airlines, and foreign aid from the U.S. The end of apartheid began in the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were freed. Apartheid officially ended in 1994, when Mandela became the country's first black leader.

International Buy Nothing Day

The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, is one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Crowds often line up before sunrise, and sometimes violence ensues. In an anti-shopping move, “Buy Nothing Day” was launched in 1992. It started in Canada, but has become an international movement focusing on anti-consumerism. In 2010, American Express launched Small Business Saturday as an alternative to Black Friday, and a year later, the Senate passed a resolution to support the independent business shopping day. In 2015, outdoor-retailer REI decided to close on Black Friday.

Arab League Boycott of Israel

In 1945, the League of Arab States (Arab League) launched an economic boycott of Israel. U.S. allies that participate in the boycott are Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the 1970s, the U.S. adopted two laws that prohibited U.S. companies from furthering or supporting the boycott of Israel, which remains mostly symbolic and has little impact on Israeli or Arab economies.


Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Against Israel

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement that started in 2005. Members of BDS want companies and people to avoid doing business with Israel because of the country’s treatment of the Palestinian people. BDS began as a nonviolent movement and has three main requests: End its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights; grant Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel full equality under the law; and establish a right-of-return policy for Palestinian refugees. While many support the movement, anti-BDS laws have also been passed in the U.S.  


Conflict diamonds

Africa is home to the majority of the world’s diamonds, which are often mined in harsh conditions. In the 1990s, people grew concerned about buying these gems, not wanting to support "blood diamonds,” or stones mined using forced labor in African war zones, potentially funding rebel armies. In 2003, the diamond industry established the Kimberley Process, an international system that certifies conflict-free diamonds. The process did reduce the number of conflict diamonds on the market, but it didn’t do much to improve the working conditions of the miners, who only share in a small percentage of the profits.


Bathroom bill North Carolina

North Carolina faced a boycott when it tried to pass House Bill 2 (HB2). Better-known as the "bathroom bill,” the law required transgender people to use the bathrooms, changing rooms, and showers in state-run buildings that corresponded to the sex on their birth certificate. After businesses like PayPal and sports leagues like the NCAA boycotted the state, North Carolina rescinded the bill.



In the 1990s, there was an international boycott campaign against Nike, which was criticized for hiring child workers and other human rights abuses. After years of boycotts, protests, and exposes, Nike created the Fair Labor Association in 1999. The nonprofit organization adds a human rights and labor representatives to establish independent monitoring and a code of conduct, including a minimum wage and 60-hour work week. CEO Phil Knight made assurances that Nike would require anyone it worked with to adhere to U.S. labor practices and standards.


National Rifle Association

After a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., left 17 people dead, there was a call to boycott the National Rifle Association. Delta and United airlines ended their ties with the NRA. So did rental car companies like Hertz and Enterprise. The First National Bank of Omaha even stopped issuing an NRA-branded credit card. If the NRA loses too many corporate partners, it could have a major influence on their donations and political influence. Whether or not the boycott has a long-lasting effect on the NRA’s bottom line, it does demonstrate widespread support for gun control.



In 1997, PepsiCo Inc. severed its ties with Burma (now Myanmar), which was ruled by a military government. Pepsi officials tried to argue that free trade would be good for the country, but acquiesced to the demands of their shareholders and customers—including the college demographic.


Greenpeace boycott against Shell

In 1995, the Shell gas company was planning to dump its Brent Spar oil rig in the North Sea. Greenpeace called for boycotts of the company, and many customers decided not to fill up with Shell gas. Faced with mounting international pressure, Shell decided not to dump the oil rig, and spent millions researching more environmentally friendly options. Even though Greenpeace later had to apologize for overestimating the amount of oil that would have been dumped, the movement showed the influence of consumer boycotts, and forced the oil company to put a little more thought into its disposal practices.



In 1984, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a three-day protest and boycott of 30 stores operated by Food Lion Inc. in several Southern cities. The supermarket chain failed to sign a "fair share” agreement to improve employment and economic opportunities for black workers. It was the first time the NAACP took direct consumer action against a company. The boycott ended after Food Lion signed an agreement with the NAACP to increase minority opportunities, including adding more management positions for minorities, hiring more minority employees across the board, and signing on with more minority-owned vendors.   



In 2012, Chick-fil-A faced controversy when then-president Dan Cathy criticized gay marriage and reports surfaced that the company donated to anti-LGBTQ organizations. While the company didn’t suffer financially, it did garner an anti-gay reputation. Many still call for boycotting the Christian chicken-focused restaurant, but the company’s policy maintains inclusivity. The Chick-fil-A Foundation donates funds to youth and education programs.


Boston Tea Party

The Tea Act of 1773 gave the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the budding American colonies. The British may not have meant to anger the colonists, but members of the Sons of Liberty were not pleased. One night in December of 1773, they dressed as Mohawk Indians, climbed aboard three ships in Boston Harbor, and tossed 92,000 pounds of tea overboard. The 1767 Townshend Revenue Act had already placed taxes on glass, lead, oil, paint, and paper, prompting boycotts and protests that forced the act’s repeal. The only thing left to tax was tea. There were no real immediate effects of the Boston Tea Party—other than angering Britain—but it was likely kindling for the Revolutionary War.


Great American Boycott

On May 1, 2006, immigrant workers boycotted business, refused to go to work, and kept their kids out of school. The day was called the Great American Boycott or a Day Without Immigrants. Organizers were protesting H.R. 337, legislation that would have made it a felony to live in the United States illegally. The boycott didn’t have much effect on the economy, but it did show the influence of the Latino population in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.



In 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, causing protests across the country. Consumers chose to boycott Trump with their wallets. After the start of the #GrabYourWallet campaign, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s products—though perhaps not because of the campaign. Uber’s Travis Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s advisory board, Macy’s ditched Trump’s line of menswear, and the Trump Home Line is no longer available on Home Shopping Network. In 2018, Ivanka Trump decided to end her entire fashion line. The boycott may not have changed the world, but it did show that consumer dollars hold power.



In 2018, British luxury brand Burberry admitted to burning millions of dollars of unsold goods in an effort to maintain its "brand value.” Some companies burn their clothes to reduce the chance that their items will be stolen or sold at a discount. Consumers were outraged at the environmental impact, and launched #burnberry to boycott the brand. Shortly after, Burberry announced it would no longer burn its clothes or sell animal fur.



In 2002, Africa Forum and Unite, the union of textile employees, called for a boycott of the Gap clothing company for exploiting its employees. Two years later, the company vowed to stop working with 136 outsourced factories due to the use of child labor, a lack of drinking water, abuse of workers, and inadequate safety and industrial hygiene measures. In 2007, the GapKids line faced new accusations that some of its clothes had been hand-embroidered by children in Delhi. As the company tried to recover its image, it set up new standards to eliminate the exploitation of child labor.



In 2005, consumers, unions, and environmental groups protested and boycotted Walmart. Afterward, the company began to make changes in its environmental protection and workforce equality policies. In 2015, Walmart was outspoken about a proposed anti-LGBT law in its home state of Arkansas. Owing to Walmart’s economic influence, the governor did not sign the bill.


Unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh

In 2013, 1,100 garment workers died at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, when a building collapsed. The building owners had violated safety codes; consumers and labor groups were outraged and pressured apparel brandsthreatening boycotts and protests—for fair and ethical treatment of workers. After the backlash, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created. Unfortunately, many buildings in Bangladesh remain unsafe.


Captain Boycott

In 1880, Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott—the namesake of all boycotts—retired from the army to become a land agent in Ireland. Boycott was told to raise the rent on his tenants, who later refused to work. The mailman stopped bringing him his mail and businesses in the area wouldn’t accept his money. He couldn’t continue business in such conditions and was forced to leave. Peasants saw the power of boycotts, and began calling for them all over the country.


Taco Bell

In the early 2000s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—an advocacy group made up largely of immigrants working in tomato fields in southwest Florida—called for a boycott of Taco Bell because the company would not negotiate with them. The boycott gained nationwide support. Many college students supported their efforts, with 21 colleges removing or blocking the restaurant chain from their campuses. Religious organizations also rallied for the cause. In 2005, former President Jimmy Carter helped negotiate a resolution that included increased wages and better working conditions for the employees.


Abercrombie & Fitch

In 2005, a group of teenage activists from Pennsylvania launched a boycott—or "girlcott”—against Abercrombie & Fitch because of sexist slogans on some of the company’s shirts, like "Who needs a brain when you have these?” Abercrombie later pulled the line.


Sugar boycott in 1791

In 1791, English merchant James Wright said he would no longer sell sugar from the West Indies because it had been produced by slaves. Barbados was a major sugar-exporting island, importing more than 250,000 slaves to toil in the industry. Jamaica imported more than twice that amount. The boycott didn’t end slavery, but it did show early support for the abolition of this inhumane practice.  


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