There’s a long history of corporate boycotts: the labor movement used them during strikes at the turn of the twentieth century, and they’ve been common since the nineteen-sixties. But, until now, boycotts have usually been staged in response to specific corporate practices. The United Farm Workers, in the mid-sixties, organized the famous grape boycott in order to get farmers to stop relying on underpaid, non-union workers. Greenpeace organized a boycott of Shell, in 1995, to stop the company from dumping an old oil platform at sea. And, in the nineties, Nike faced a boycott over its reliance on sweatshop labor.
By contrast, the Trump boycotts, from both the left and the right, have been driven by issues extraneous to the targets’ core business practices. There are antecedents: a few years ago, L.G.B.T. activists went after Chick-fil-A after its president voiced his opposition to gay marriage. But there’s something new about the speed and ferocity with which people now respond to corporate statements or signals. You can see it as the next logical step in the evolution of what’s sometimes called political consumerism. In the past few decades, we’ve grown accustomed to holding corporations responsible for their labor practices and environmental records. So it’s not surprising that they are being called to account for their real or imagined political messages.
James Surowiecki, “Shop Till They Drop”, The New Yorker (9 January 2017), 23.