The 10 Day Boycott: A S.M.A.R.T. response to Whole Foods’ CEO Mackey

by cv harquail on August 27, 2009

Boycotts don’t work.

Boycotts rarely, if ever, achieve the goal(s) set out for them, in large part because boycott organizers lack clear goals for what response the boycott is supposed to trigger and especially for what the boycotting action has to demonstrate in order to be seen as “successful”.

So I’ve got a proposal, for those who want to use a boycott to show Whole Foods that they disagree with John Mackey’s comments about Obamacare:

10 day.jpg200908270943.jpg

Boycott Whole Foods, and do it in a S.M.A.R.T. way:
Make it a 10- day boycott

A 10-day boycott is more likely to succeed than an unscheduled, unlimited boycott, because a 10-Day Boycott is:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Your remember SMART objectives, don’t you? I first learned about SMART objectives as a sales rep for P&G, where we had to manage and choose among a bunch of competing goals. This nifty acronym has long worked for me for crafting goals that work. Just this week, Alan Skorkin posted a full great description of this kind of goal-setting, which you should read for more details. But back to Whole Foods. …

How a 10-Day Boycott Works

Folks advocating a boycott of Whole Foods should choose one 10-day period, and advertise the start and stop date of the boycott to all who are interested in participating. This will work better than an open-ended boycott because it will be —


Set a specific time span. The boycott would cover a single 10 day span. Note that 10 days is the maximum amount of time in a grocery purchase cycle (most every one buys groceries at least once in a 10 day period.) With a boycott that spans this length of time, each participant is asked to skip one (maybe two) purchase cycles. Set a specific action within the time span: Don’t shop at Whole Foods. Lets boycotters know exactly what they are supposed to do– shop somewhere else during those 10 days.

Brayden King, boycott scholar, recommends that organizers be specific about two other elements of the boycott plan, beyond the date and the action:

  • Make the GOAL of the boycott specific too, so that the boycott target knows just what you want them to change or do.
  • Offer a specific Alternative Action (like, “Shop at the People’s Food Co-op”).  When people have an alternative action to replace the action they are boycotting, it makes it easier to follow through.

And an added bonus— you can throw some support to an organization who *does* share the boycotters’ values.  [8.28.09]


A 10-day boycott spans enough time, a specific enough time, and a specific enough action that its impact cam be measured. Metrics 101 reminds us that its difficult to measure something that has no specific beginning and no specific end…  Boycott organizers could measure the impact themselves if they choose to, and do this more easily than with an ongoing boycott. While the most precise measure of the effect of the boycott would be to compare same store sales vs. the previous year, even without access to that kind of data, activists could use reasonable proxy measures; they could count the # of cars into the parking lot for a week before the boycott vs those in the parking lot for 7 days of the boycott. Time intensive, yes, but also measurable.

200908270945.jpgA 10-day boycott is measurable in another way too— other people can see a focused boycott more easily than one stretched out over time. This visibility helps boycotts do their best work, of damaging the organization’s reputation. Mashable notes the drop in consumers’ positive perceptions of Whole Foods, and suggests that this is linked to boycott efforts on Facebook.)


For angry Whole Foods customers, it’s just not that hard to skip one purchase cycle. And, even for those who are not quite so angry or quite so convinced, a 10 day boycott is something they might participate in. It’s a lot easier to shop elsewhere just once or twice, and then to go back to Whole Foods, becuase this requires much less commitment than an ongoing boycott.


Folks who are mad at Whole Foods, want to demonstrate just how angry they are. A 10-Day boycott of Whole Foods will show that many regular customers are mad. Customers can direct their anger/values into their behavior, and “do something” rather than just stew about it. And, they can direct their frustration at the purported source of their concern– the organization that is Whole Foods.

By not shopping their during this limited focused time, customers can demonstrate that the support they give to Whole Foods because of what (they think) Whole Foods stands for can also be rescinded if Whole Foods turns out to be different from what it has been telling customers. If values draw customers, then values repel customers.

A 10-day boycott is relevant in another way– It is focused enough that folks who are ambivalent about whether ‘punishing’ the organization is really the right thing to do might participate anyway. Boycotts are so often ‘all or nothing’ efforts that they end up being nothing because they cannot (seem to) get big enough to matter. But the goal of a 10-day boycott is not to shut down the business– that would be nearly impossible.

The goal of a 10- Day Boycott is to say, “Hey, we’re pissed. We want you to recognize that we shop here because we like your values, so you’d better adhere to these values.” As Savoyards anywhere would note, we must “let the punishment fit the crime.”


Setting a specific time frame– just 10 days– makes it easy for people to commit to participating. They know just what they are getting in to. With sharp start and stop limits, a 10-day boycott can have a more focused effect ( i.e., better that 100 people skip Whole Foods over 10 days, than this same 100 people over 38 days). And, a time-boxed boycott is just easier for any slacktivists… it might get the out of their armchairs and off to the local food coop, because it’s simple.

Is a 10-Day Boycott the right thing to do to respond to Mackey’s Op-Ed piece?


Personally, I think that people who are really concerned about Mackey as a leader of Whole Foods and as a defender/promoter of progressive values would be better off writing letters to Whole Foods’ board, and telling the Board that they want Whole Foods to be lead by people whose personal values are firmly aligned with the ones that Whole Foods’ purports to hold.

A boycott may not be the ‘right’ response, but if a boycott is called for, then a 10-day Boycott is a way to go.


brayden August 28, 2009 at 10:17 am

The goal of the boycott must also be measurable and specific. A lot of boycotts fail simply because it wasn’t clear what the purpose of the action was. Companies can’t respond if they don’t know what the boycotters think they should change.

Also, boycott organizers would benefit from making clear alternatives available to the participants. If you want to boycott Acme Pizza, make sure that participants know where else they can buy their pizza (especially a pizza of roughly the same quality and price). Without alternatives the likelihood of participants actually following through with it are much smaller.
.-= brayden´s last blog ..politics of the corporation syllabus =-.

cv August 28, 2009 at 10:54 am

Hi Brayden-

I’m going to add those two points…thanks for the expert action advice!

Willa Geertsema August 29, 2009 at 5:16 am

Well actually I think the whole idea of a boycott to Wholefoods because you don’t agree with Mackey is ludicrous. Turning it into a SMART idea only makes it worse as you give it more legitimacy. I understand that you don’t really agree with the boycott to start with – then why give it more legitimacy? You end up hurting the people we want Mackey to take care of: the growers in distant countries who really need their fair trade, his employees, the local growers who depend on Wholefoods. I am a customer of them, not just of Mackey.

To me the idea of the boycott seems like an ‘old’ sort of knee-jerk reaction that comes from a level of awareness that cares more about being right than about making things work. From there, all we end up doing is swinging like a pendulum between our reactions. I fully respect if you don’t agree with Mackey, but why not take him on directly? Invite him for public discussion, write about him, hassle him, get him on tv, go to Oprah. Then he can explain himself and you create a useful discussion.

Hurting Wholefoods only hurts countless people who can’t be held responsible for the opinions of John Mackey – in the middle of a crushing recession that hurts everyone badly enough anyway.
.-= Willa Geertsema´s last blog ..Direction, Alignment, Commitment: Leadership Revisited =-.

cv August 29, 2009 at 12:36 pm

HI Willa-
I agree with you that the better option would be what I call the win-win-win conversation, where the two parties get together to discuss and agree on a solution that serves each of them and their shared community. (Just what I suggested as a solution to the Walmart v Girl Scout conflict.)

Maybe boycotts do come from a place about being ‘right’ (or rather, being angry and wanting to find a way to show that en masse … and that would suggest that a ‘better boycott’ is one that also serves to create a conversation as well as some education too. I recall that this kind of activist education was an important component of the civil rights and feminist movements of the ’60s and ’70s and would be appropriate now too.

thanks for your comment and also for letting me know about your own blog! cv

Joseph Logan August 30, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Seems to my naive thinking that a boycott punishes employees and customers of Whole Foods far more than it does Mackey. To the extent the company is hurt, the levers for correcting are in staffing levels and product pricing, which results in job loss and even higher prices on high-quality food that has no easy alternative in many markets. Mackey probably thought some of this through prior to publishing.

That aside, though, I’m not sure disagreeing with a leader’s opinion is sufficient reason to punish a company. Wouldn’t boycotts mean more if they punished practice rather than opinion?
.-= Joseph Logan´s last blog ..White House risks classic mistakes in AfPak KPIs =-.

Willa Geertsema September 6, 2009 at 6:01 am

Hello cv, thanks for your gracious response to my strong opinion! Yes I agree, discussion and education are the way forward, and it would be interesting to think of collective ways to show anger that don’t mess up the actual business. Because expressing anger on a material level takes one step forward and three steps back and is not in the interest of all. And if Wholefoods would be a greedy arms-trader, it would obviously be a different matter – but in fact it’s one of the coolest and most idealistic businesses in the world, warts and all.

I like what John Mackey does with Wholefoods, and he also seems to me someone who has moved beyond the level of only responding to material threats, and sensitive to discussion and his customers’ genuine opinions – not just because of profit but because of the idealism of a better world. So opening up discussion, perhaps including nagging or anger if that is appropriate, should be fruitful.

That in itself would be a major change wouldn’t it – disputes being discussed publicly with respect, interest and a sense of the new solutions that are needed – not bargaining about how each party thinks they’re already right. Now that would be truly inspiring, and change the rules of the game!
.-= Willa Geertsema´s last blog ..Direction, Alignment, Commitment: Leadership Revisited =-.

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