Divestment focuses on one secondary target at a time (e.g. the Tate Museum’s sponsorship of British Petroleum) in order to increase pressure and build public anger against the primary target (e.g. the fossil fuel industry as a whole), so that it becomes isolated and eventually has no choice but to comply. People start to personally identify the primary target with the injustice you are fighting, eventually seeing it as the main obstacle to a just solution. The idea is to dismantle the network of support that your target enjoys, including clients, sponsors, shareholders, or the general public, until the target accedes to your campaign’s demands.

Who to Target

Potentially, any company or institution can become a target of a divestment campaign, but it is absolutely critical that the target is chosen strategically (see: PRINCIPLE: Choose your target wisely). Often, a divestment campaign will focus on secondary targets because the primary target is too powerful or too removed from your supporters’ daily lives to be directly pressured (see: TACTIC: Consumer boycott). Once a target is chosen, power map the web of relationships around that target. In weighing the range of primary and secondary targets, organizers should consider the degree of involvement of each potential target in the violations at hand, and how vulnerable the target might be to pressure or persuasion.

Almost all entities being lobbied to divest will initially resist or ignore your call. It is thus important to remain persistent and have an escalation plan you can stick to until your target concedes to your demands.  Remember: A divestment campaign is only one piece of a long-term, multi-pronged strategy, and the breakthrough will come only after a trickle of small successes that continue to accumulate until the last straw breaks the camel’s back — and you win.

Bonus Benefits

While the core focus of a divestment campaign is to bring direct or indirect economic pressure on a target, the campaign’s most important function is often more broadly political and moral. By drawing a clear ethical line in the sand and offering many local targets, a divestment campaign creates many points of entry for activism, and can be particularly effective at deepening and broadening the movements they are part of.

An Example

The global climate justice movement has chosen to target the fossil fuel industry, identifying it as the main obstacle blocking serious action on climate change. The 2015 climate talks in Paris saw 500 institutions commit to divest their capital from fossil fuel companies, while many students have launched campaigns pressuring the universities they attend to divest. So far, the movement has won pledges to divest $3.4 trillion — a sign that the tide of public opinion is turning against the fossil fuel industry.

Read more climate divestment stories at 350.org.

NY Youth Climate Leaders chalk DIVEST NY in front of NY Capitol, May 2020.
In Sept 2020, the New York State pension fund, valued at over $226 billion (USD) announced it will divest from a bold climate action and divestment plan. It came about after years of campaigning by the DivestNY coalition.