To Buy or Not To Buy


This lesson printed from:


Have you ever heard it said, “Consumers vote with their dollars.” In a market economy, dollars are a form of consumermoney in hand power. When consumers purchase goods and services, we are rewarding producers and retailers who provide what we want. When we make a purchase from a particular business, we are also – in effect – financially supporting the company’s policies and practices.

Of course, we can also make the choice not to buy. A choice not to buy is ordinarily an individual decision. But sometimes people decide -- as members of a group -- not to buy . When we collectively refuse to buy a certain product, the action is called a boycott. This is a technique we can use to register dissatisfaction with a company or a product. Consumers have come to realize that boycotts can also influence how companies, communities, and even nations behave.


In this lesson you will study how the consumer choice not to buy can be and has been used to force businesses and others to change policies and practices. You will consider what factors increase the chance of boycott success. As a final project, you will select a current consumer boycott and create a promotional piece telling others why the market action deserves their support.


Activity 1: Boycotts – An American Tradition

Boycotts have played an important role in U.S. History – they have been used as a form of protest and as a technique to bring about significant economic and non economic change. In a recent nationwide survey, business leaders said boycotts have more impact on their businesses than any other consumer action including class action suits, letter writing campaigns, and lobbying.

Provided below are details of five occasions in U.S. history when boycotts were used as a tool to force change. Read one of the stories and use this worksheet to record what you have learned (your teacher will instruct you which one to study). Be prepared to discuss your findings with the class.

  1. Colonial America’s protest of the 1765 Stamp Act
  2. The 1902 Kosher Meat Boycott in New York City
  3. The 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott
  4. The United Farm Workers boycott of table grapes in the 1960s
  5. A boycott of tuna to help save dolphins in the 1990s

From these examples, you can see that our “dollar vote” can have an influence far beyond what businesses make and sell in the marketplace.

Activity 2: Boycott Targets Today

boycottAt any point in time, a multitude of businesses are boycott targets. Several Internet sites have been developed to help spread the word on and generate support for these consumer actions. Use these sites to find a boycott that you might support or would like to know more about.

  1. The AFL-CIO “Do Not Buy” List - Boycotts requested by unions to support workers nationally and internationally.
  2. Ethical Consumer Boycott List - Boycotts affecting consumers in the United Kingdom—but most of the campaigns also affect U.S. consumers.
  3. CO-op America - News and updates on current boycotts from Co-op America.

Submit your choice to your teacher for approval then create a flyer promoting the boycott. Elements of your public relations piece should include:

  • The boycott target including any specific goods or services that consumers are encouraged not to buy
  • The boycott sponsor and the sponsor’s reasons for the boycott
  • Any other information that is necessary to understand the boycott

You will want to make your flyer visually interesting. Use headlines and graphic images, as well as text. The images might be photographs, clip-art, or your own artwork.


protestWhile you are working on your flyer, think about these questions. Be prepared to discuss them with your classmates.

  1. Would you support this boycott by refusing to buy the good or service? Why or why not?
  2. There are a number of other ways that individuals can lend support to a boycott campaign. Which of these would you do? Why or why not?
    • Picket, distribute leaflets or otherwise participate in a public protest demonstration
    • Write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper
    • Refuse to work for a business that is targeted
    • Refuse to invest in a business that is targeted
  3. How might each of the following factors influence the effectiveness of a boycott?
    • Public support for the cause
    • Media attention
    • Availability of market substitutes for the targeted products
    • Easily identified products or brands (for example—being able to distinguish products made by a specific business or handled by union workers)
    • Image consciousness of the target
    • Willingness and ability of the target to change
    • Reasonableness of boycotter’s demands.


As consumers in a market economy, we choose how we spend our money. Our dollars can be used to reward favored producers and punish others. Our dollar choices are also a market tool we can use to influence how business, cities and even nations behave.


Assessment will be based on your work in the above activities.


  1. Interview a friend or family member, asking:
    • Have you ever participated in a boycott – refusing to buy a good or service?
    • What was the purpose of the boycott?
    • Do you think the boycott was effective? Why or why not?
  2. The Internet makes it possible to quickly gather information on a company’s record concerning the treatment of workers, the environment and other social issues. Select a product you buy and research the records of the companies who produce it. Two web sites that will help you are:
  3. Nations sometimes impose economic sanctions on other nations. How are sanctions similar to boycotts? How are they different?  Are they effective? To help you answer these questions, the CATO Institute offers a very helpful web site that illustrates the lack of success of trade sanctions over the years. Visit them at the CATO website.