Lots of corporations through the years have been boycotted, but until somewhat recently it had been fairly rare for corporations to be the ones to speak out.
After the Georgia law’s passage, though, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, for example, condemned the law as “unacceptable.” Home Depot, Georgia’s largest company, has tried to steer clear of the controversy. Its co-founder, Ken Langone, was an early — and major — financial backer of Donald Trump, though after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, he said he felt “betrayed” by the former president.
And while companies based in Georgia spoke up after the measure became law, some corporations based in Texas are getting ahead of proposed voting bills there.
On Friday, another business leader, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, called laws like Georgia’s “racist” and a “step backward.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to work with the legislatures” in places like Texas and Florida, where Levi’s has large operations, “to make sure that these restrictive laws don’t go into place,” Bergh said on CNN.
Trump, meanwhile, has called for a boycott of what he derisively has called “woke” companies, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell warned of potentially “serious consequences” for companies that weigh in on voting rules. It’s quite the twist from what had been, for years, a lockstep relationship between corporate America and the Republican Party. But that has been upended by the party’s emphasis on cultural issues in the Trump era.
These boycotts aren’t coming out of nowhere, and one doesn’t have to look far for similar ones. Here’s a look at some prominent examples in history — recent and not so recent — how boycotts got started, and where the word comes from:
Some Notable Examples
North Carolina “bathroom bill”: In 2016, the NCAA boycotted the state of North Carolina, and some state and local governments prevented their officials from traveling to North Carolina for business, because of a law limiting LGBTQ rights that included restrictions on which bathrooms people could use.
The boycott led to the repeal of the law in 2017.
Social media and hate speech: Last year, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Hershey, Honda, Ford and others boycotted Facebook and other social media platforms by pausing advertising because they felt the social media companies weren’t doing enough to remove hate speech. Facebook did act eventually, and many months later, it — and Twitter and others — banned Trump from their sites following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and because of his lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Conservatives in recent years have complained of rampant bias and censorship from social media companies, and they’ve accused the corporations now speaking up as succumbing to “cancel culture.” But looking at the history of boycotts, “cancel culture” goes back a lot further than one might think. (Keep on reading.)
Ford under the microscope: Ironically, 100 years before Ford’s boycott of social media giants, the car giant itself was being boycotted.
In 1918, Henry Ford bought a local newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Under Ford’s ownership, it published anti-Semitic articles. A boycott of Ford gained steam, and the company’s auto sales declined.
Henry Ford eventually apologized and sold the paper in 1927.
Religious conservatives also boycotted Ford in the 2000s because of a pro-LGBTQ corporate stance. But that had less success, given the rising acceptance at that time of LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage.
Farmworkers and Taco Bell: After a decade-long fight waged by Florida farmworkers, who highlighted low pay and poor working conditions on tomato farms to no avail, the workers shifted their sights from suppliers to the companies that bought the tomatoes. One of those was Taco Bell.
In 2005, after a three-year boycott — and in a deal that former President Jimmy Carter helped broker — the fast-food chain announced it would buy tomatoes only from growers who agreed to the deal, which would pay higher wages and provide better working conditions.
“We recognize that Florida tomato workers do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as employees in other industries and there is a need for reform,” then-Taco Bell President Emil Brolick said in a statement. “We have indicated that any solution must be industry-wide, as our company simply does not have the clout alone to solve the issues raised.”
Where does the word “boycott” come from?
Ireland, and a man named Charles Boycott.
Yes, there was literally a man named Boycott who, by the way, wasn’t doing any of the boycotting but was, instead, himself being boycotted.
Boycott, a retired British army captain, was an estate manager for English landowners who owned land in Ireland. Irish farmers had a particularly bad harvest in 1880 and wanted a rent reduction. The landowners, with Boycott as their proxy, would not give as much of a reduction as was sought. When the tenants refused to pay, Boycott attempted to have them evicted — some forcibly.
The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party advised the tenants to cease communication with Boycott, and he was isolated. People in town would not sell goods or provide services to him — or people associated with him. Boycott complained about the situation to the British press, and it was amplified around the world.
The episode backfired on Boycott and increased the power of Irish peasants and the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the following year, the Land Act of 1881 put in place fair-rent tribunals.
In 1888, the word “boycott” was entered into the dictionary for the first time.