The best books about boycotts & consumer activism

Allyson Brantley Author Of Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism
By Allyson Brantley

The Books I Picked & Why

Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America

By Lawrence B. Glickman

Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America

Why this book?

My copy of Buying Power is extremely dog-eared and worn – this was an essential resource as I wrote Brewing a Boycott. Glickman offers a compelling and wide-ranging account of Americans’ efforts since the 18th century to raise consumer consciousness and boycott offending products. In this book, we see clearly that boycotting is an “American political tradition” that ties together many moments in American history, from colonists engaging in what they called “non-consumption” to abolitionists in the antebellum North and Ralph Nader’s fight for a Consumer Protection Agency in the 1970s. As a bonus, Glickman includes an informative appendix that breaks down consumer movements’ members, tactics, and significance.


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Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson

By Blair L.M. Kelley

Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson

Why this book?

One of the most iconic and best-known boycotts of the 20th century is the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, launched by Rosa Parks’ famous act of civil disobedience. But as Blair L.M. Kelley demonstrates in Right to Ride, the Montgomery movement grew out of a longer tradition of boycotts and protest in the United States. In the 1850s, Black women in New York City protested segregation in the city’s streetcars. Decades later, Black activists boycotted segregated streetcars in at least twenty-five southern cities between 1900 and 1907. Kelley’s book, which tells this forgotten and, at times, failed history, reminds us that boycott movements are important forms of resistance – even under threats of violence and in the face of significant obstacles.


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Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America

By Emily E. LB. Twarog

Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America

Why this book?

Women – and housewives – have long done most of a household’s shopping, making them the arbiters of family consumer habits. But as Twarog details in this fascinating book, many working-class American women have used their status as housewives to engage in protest and build power. Politics of the Pantry focuses particularly on battles over the cost of food – especially meat – in the 20th century. Women-led meat boycotts occurred in 1935, 1966, 1969, and 1973, for example. This slim volume is readable, engaging, and highlights the important role that women have played in consumer politics.


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From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

By Matt Garcia

From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

Why this book?

The literature on Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and their boycott campaigns is quite extensive. Matt Garcia’s is one of the best accounts of the Farm Workers’ strategy of boycotting grapes, lettuce, and other items to build power and win a union. What I especially appreciate about Garcia’s account is, first, his focus on the innovations in consumer activism brought about by the UFW. Organizers and workers made their boycott succeed by going into cities, living together in boycott houses, and appealing to urban consumers. Garcia’s accounts of boycott houses and organizers’ efforts from Los Angeles to Toronto and London are excellent. Second, Garcia doesn’t stray from critiquing the boycott tactic and noting places where it fell short – making this a cautionary tale for activists today.


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Buying Into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States

By Heidi Tinsman

Buying Into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States

Why this book?

You’ll never look at table grapes the same after reading Tinsman’s excellent Buying into the Regime. Her book takes a different approach from the texts above – instead of looking at a single movement, she focuses on a single industry (Chilean grapes) in multiple contexts: cultivation in Chile, Cold War consumption in the United States, and consumer activism and grape boycotts in both nations. The result is a remarkable transnational history that underscores how consumption itself is a “terrain of political struggle.” Tinsman’s expansive perspective, which engages a number of different fields, also offers lessons for activists in the age of globalization, notably that building transnational alliances is incredibly difficult work.


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