U.S. Consumer Movement

In the early 1900s the American consumer movement addressed two overriding issues: the human misery caused by poverty and the prevailing caveat emptor attitude. Consumerists' concerns for the poor focused on substandard living conditions for people in overcrowded cities, a problem that was aggravated by successive waves of immigration and large migrations of people from farms to cities during the period. At the same time caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware,” implied that producers were blameless for products that were unsafe or failed to meet performance standards. Substandard and injurious products such as unsafe food and medicines routinely victimized consumers. These issues caused people to become wary of businesses and prompted consumers to organize.

Early consumerist voices included the muckrakers, aggressive investigative news reporters and authors who researched unfair business practices, unsafe products, and other violations of the public trust. During the early twentieth century the muckrakers often published their findings in magazines such as McClure's and Puck. Other muckrakers, including Upton Sinclair, authored novels such as The Jungle (1906). The Jungle exposed the horrific living conditions of immigrants and the nauseating production techniques employed by Chicago's meat packing industry. The Jungle enraged the public—including President Teddy Roosevelt—and pushed Congress to approve the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also called the Wiley Act. At about the same time, America's first national consumer organization, the National Consumers League (1899), was formed. It advocated for improved working and living conditions for the urban poor. Over time, other national consumer organizations were formed, including Consumers' Research (1928), Consumers Union (1936), Consumers International (1960), Consumer Federation of America (1967), and Public Citizen (1971).

As the consumer movement matured, it became a recognized force for change in the U.S. economy. During the 1950s and 1960s major national organizations such as the Consumers Union and Consumers' Research expanded their product research capabilities and became influential voices in shaping public opinion and public policy. Consumer

Children stuff sausages in a Chicago meatpacking house

Children stuff sausages in a Chicago meatpacking house, 1893. (Library of Congress)

organizations pressured the government to enact consumer laws and regulations. They also nurtured the rise of a consumer consciousness, an attitude in which people rejected caveat emptor and insisted on honesty and fairness in marketplace transactions.

The consumer movement also gained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s through the efforts of individuals. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy's Consumer Bill of Rights for Americans defined consumer rights as the right to product safety, to be informed, to choose, and to be heard. Shortly thereafter consumerist Ralph Nader burst into the national limelight with his book Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). This hard-hitting book prompted reform legislation in the area of auto safety.

Since the 1960s the U.S. consumer movement has woven the concept of consumer rights into the economic mainstream. It has also broadened its mission. Today many specialized consumer groups advocate for improvements in health care, product and food safety, nutrition and nutrition labeling, truth in advertising, financial services, telemarketing, and environmental protection. The consumer movement has gained considerable clout. The movement's influence increased as it became more professional, better funded, and supported by both public opinion and by law. Today some consumer groups employ researchers, scientists, engineers, and other experts, which adds to their legitimacy. Professional lobbyists and lawyers are also employed by consumer groups to support consumers' interests through legislation and litigation.

International Consumer Movement

Consumers International (CI) coordinates the global consumer movement. CI is an independent, nonprofit organization of consumer groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). CI, originally called the International Organization of Consumers Unions, was founded in 1960 to unify the voices of consumers worldwide. CI helped devise, and currently supports, the implementation of the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1985. These UN guidelines expanded on the four consumer rights named by President John F. Kennedy in his 1962 Consumer Bill of Rights for Americans. By the early 2010s CI membership included over 240 organizations spread across 120 countries. In its 2010 annual report CI reaffirmed its mission “to build a powerful international consumer movement to help protect and empower consumers everywhere.”[1]

CI champions a variety of consumer concerns, many of which are connected with economic changes occurring in the global economy. Recent CI initiatives include food safety, availability of basic services, health care, environmental protection, consumer education, sustainable consumption, and corporate social responsibility. To these ends CI assisted member organizations reform national consumer policies. CI sponsors high-profile annual events such as World Consumer Rights Day, which in 2013 focused on consumer justice.[2] CI also participates in the decision making of global institutions such as the United Nations and in regional organizations such as the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

  • [1] Consumers International (CI), Annual Report and Financial Statement 2010 (London: Consumers International, December 31, 2010), 5-7; CI, “The Global Voice for Consumers”
  • [2] CI, “The Global Voice for Consumers: World Consumer Rights Day 2013; Consumer Justice Now,”
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