When Bank of America announced plans recently to institute a monthly fee for debit card users, it prompted a massive outcry from customers and a wave of high-profile media coverage. With thousands of customers threatening to leave the bank, the institution quickly dropped the proposed fee, proving that the customer can still have a say in the corporate world.

The same holds true for Catholic consumers who take issue with the ethical practices of big corporations. By uniting their voices and organizing a corporate boycott, consumers have the opportunity to pressure companies into changing their ways.

“Consumers have a moral obligation to raise questions about corporate behavior that they find objectionable,” said Kirk Hanson, an expert in business ethics and executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. And Catholic activists and parish groups have a long history of taking up the cause of leading successful boycotts.

One example, Hanson told Our Sunday Visitor, was the involvement of many Catholic groups and other religious organizations in an international boycott of Nestle in the 1970s and ’80s over the potential health risks of Nestle’s infant formulas in developing countries. The boycott eventually got the attention of the company, who agreed to the demands of protesters.

More recently, many Catholics joined in a boycott of Pepsi products upon learning that the company partnered with Senomyx, a biotech company that uses embryonic stem cells to conduct flavor research. Catholics also led a boycott of the clothing designer Benetton that led the company to quickly pulling an advertisement depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing imam Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed El-Tayeb.

Technology tools

Thanks to modern technology, Hanson said, consumers can spread word of product concerns and boycott efforts much more easily. And as a result, companies are more worried than ever about protecting their reputations.

“It used to be that unless it hit the mainstream press, nobody paid much attention to the company’s behavior,” he said. “Now there are subgroups of all kinds, and it is easier to reach people with a particular interest in a particular aspect of a company’s behavior.”

Websites like change.org allow consumers to start an online petition, with an email being sent to the target corporation each time a new signature is added. A recent example saw a parent start a petition to boycott J.C. Penney over what she felt were sexist slogans on T-shirts for young girls. With the help of Facebook and Twitter, the petition garnered thousands of signatures in hours, leading the retailer to pull the shirts.

Starting off small

Hanson said it often helps for a group to start with a simple letter expressing their concerns before launching a full scale boycott.

“But the group needs to be willing to escalate the campaign by seeking media attention if the company takes no action,” he told OSV. “This may require marching in front of a store, taking your money out of a bank, or making a legitimate victim available to the press so their story can be told.”

In some cases, he added, companies are in fact concerned about doing the right thing but will be hesitant to act because the potential financial cost can be difficult to explain to shareholders. In such instances, boycotts offer a credible explanation for changing a company’s behavior.

“Activist groups can provide an excuse that helps corporations legitimize doing the right thing,” Hanson said. “That is what parish groups and Catholic activists of all kinds should be engaged in.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.

See also: Investing with a clear conscience