Do Consumer Boycotts Work in the U.S.? Just Ask the British
Boycott Trump? The movement to stick it to the billionaire-turned-president has been gaining momentum, with groups like Grab Your Wallet targeting the business ventures of Trump and his inner circle. Both Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus recently dropped Ivanka Trump’s product lines, though both companies denied the boycotts had anything to do with their decision.
Trump’s opponents are even targeting companies deemed too cozy to the administration, forcing Uber’s CEO to resign from the president’s advisory council as a boycott campaign called #deleteuber rocked the company. Not to outdone, pro-Trump partisans have vowed to boycott companies which ran pro-immigration ads during the Super Bowl, with Lumber 84 and Budweiser among the targets of their ire.
All of this can seem like a distraction from the real issues. But consumer boycotts have been incredibly effective in U.S. history, not only at altering the behavior of rulers, but of building a cohesive, powerful political movement from the ground up.
Consumer activism goes all the way back to antiquity, according to historian Lawrence Glickman. But it first emerged as a broad-based, popular movement in colonial North America when the revolutionaries first squared off against the British government over two issues that continue to divide Americans two centuries later (taxes and trade) and one that was settled just a few years later (self-government). The tactics honed then are surprisingly relevant today.
The American Revolution did not begin with the shots exchanged at Lexington and Concord in 1775; rather, it was a long, drawn-out campaign of resistance that dated back to 1765. At that time, the British Parliament, believing that the colonists should pay their fair share of costs of the recent war with France, began a concerted campaign to wring more tax revenue out of the American colonies.
By the 1760s, the colonies imported vast quantities of British goods: everything from textiles to tea. This put Americans in a position of commercial dependency, but as a growing number of colonists came to realize, they were not without leverage. If they refused to purchase these goods, British merchants and manufactures would suffer, putting pressure on Parliament to change its policies.
This idea gained currency during the campaign to repeal the Stamp Act, the first major measure passed by Parliament to tax the colonists. As resistance to the measure spread, American merchants pledged to stop importing British goods. But a hitherto silent constituency joined the effort in a more decisive way: women.
Women in colonial America wielded considerable power as consumers, as one writer in Pennsylvania explained in 1767. “American ladies,” he declared, were central the outcome of the new boycotts because “we all know how much it is in their power to retrench superfluous expenses.” Indeed, women soon became the vanguard of a growing boycott of all British goods, particularly textiles.
This “non-importation” movement relied heavily on theatrical, even ostentatious displays of resistance. Women known as “Daughters of Liberty” gathered in public demonstrations to weave homegrown wool into cloth. The resulting “homespun” was worn as a badge of patriotic honor (“pussy hats” had yet to make an appearance).
These tactics helped build a movement, but it was more coercive measures -- namely, the violent intimidation of imperial officials charged with imposing the tax -- that pressured Parliament to repeal the hated Stamp Act in 1766. When it was quickly replaced with a host of taxes known collectively as the Townshend Duties, thousands of ordinary men and women joined together for the first mass consumer boycotts in American history.
Between 1767 and 1771, writes historian Timothy Breen, numerous “committees and voluntary associations constructed lists of prohibited goods as well as lists of people who purchased them.” Anyone who refused to abide by the new boycotts would risk public scrutiny, shame, and ostracism.
Goods of all kinds became targets of boycotts, but it was luxury items that the revolutionaries renounced above all. In 1769, the Virginia House of Burgesses vowed not to import dozens of articles: sugar, pickles, pewter, tables, mirrors and silk; “lace of all sorts,” as well as “Ribbon and Millinery of all Sorts”; clocks and watches; “trinkets and jewellery”; “India Goods of all Sorts, except Spices” (the patriots couldn’t do without pepper); and wine, cider, beer and ale.
It took several years to build the movement into something formidable. The colonies were a vast area, after all, making it difficult to act in concert. But gradually, committees corresponded with other committees and newspapers in major cities spread word of the boycott, inspiring movements in other places. Thousands of ordinary people ended up signing pledges not to consume British imports, though it would have taken a lot less time had Ben Franklin somehow invented Twitter back then.
By the end of the decade, consumer boycotts had become the primary weapon in the battle against Parliament, with one group in North Carolina describing the campaign as a “momentous business, wherein we may now clearly perceive, entirely hinges American liberty.” In time, the boycott quickly came to encompass not only specific goods, but those merchants foolish enough to try and circumvent the boycott too.
Merchants who violated the boycott now found themselves named -- and shamed -- in newspapers and by protesters. Simeon Cooley, a merchant in New York City, was labeled a “Reptile and Miscreant” and shunned after violating the boycott a second time. In a handful of cases, the revolutionaries resorted to tar and feathers to make their point, running some merchants out of town.
Ugly? Yes. But most effective. The boycott of British goods in the late 1760s helped prompt Parliament to repeal most of the Townshend Duties in 1770. However, its far more important legacy was the creation of extra-legal organizations that turned ordinary men and women into political activists. The same committees set up to enforce consumer boycotts became the basis of the far more enduring revolutionary committees that gradually usurped imperial authority in the wake of the Tea Party of 1773.
Indeed, the kinds of organizations built atop the original non-importation movements had a much broader purview, rooting out anyone who remained loyal to the crown. “Committees of Observation” sought to root out fence sitters and others who wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. What began as a means of enforcing boycotts ultimately became the basis of far more sweeping tests of one’s patriotism.
Much the same thing now seems to be happening as corporate leaders come under scrutiny by both their employees and consumers. It was not tenable for Uber’s CEO to play both sides. This puts corporate America in a rather difficult position. But the growing consumer pressure will almost certainly make corporations think twice about exposing themselves to the charges of complicity that once rained down on merchants selling British goods.
But the real legacy of these movements will be far more momentous. Large-scale boycotts are a way of building a grassroots movement that brings once complacent but now furious ordinary citizens into politics. And that, more than any hit to the president’s holdings, should keep him up at night.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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