Consumer movement

The consumer movement is an effort to promote consumer protection through an organized social movement which is in many places led by consumer organizations. It advocates for the rights of consumers, especially when those rights are infringed by the actions of corporations, governments, and other organizations which provide products & services to consumers.


The terms "consumer movement" and "consumerism" are used as equivalent terms in much writing.[1] The traditional use of the term "consumerism" still practiced by contemporary consumer organizations refers to advancing consumer protection and can include legislators passing consumer protection laws, regulators policing these laws, educators who teach consumer policy, product testers who measure the extent to which products meet standards, cooperative organizations which supply products and services mindfully of consumer interest, as well as the consumer movement itself.[1] The term "consumer movement" refers to only nonprofit advocacy groups and grassroots activism to promote consumer interest by reforming the practices of corporations or policies of government, so the "consumer movement" is a subset of the discipline of "consumerism".[1]

In the 1960s in the United States lobbyists of the United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation began using the term "consumerism" to refer to the consumer movement in a pejorative and antagonistic way.[2] This was an attempt to denigrate the general movement and the work of Esther Peterson in her role as Special Assistant to the President for Consumer Affairs.[2] Since that time, other people have confounded the term "consumerism" with the concepts of commercialism and materialism.[2] Still other people use "consumerism" to refer to a philosophy that the ever-expanding consumption of products is advantageous to the economy, and they contrast consumerism with the modern term "anti-consumerism" in opposition to the practice of over-consumption.

Ideological foundations

Among the people whose ideas formed the basis of what became the consumer movement are the following:[3]

The event which historians recognize as launching the consumer movement was Frederick J. Schlink and Stuart Chase's publication of Your Money's Worth.[3] The innovation which the publishing of this book brought about was the concept of product testing, which is the basis of the modern consumer movement.[4]

By region

United States

The history of the consumer movement begins in the United States. Beginning in the 1960s-70s scholars began to recognize "waves" of consumer activism, and much of the academic research on the consumer movement sorted it into "three waves of consumer activism". Since that time, other scholars have described other waves.


Waves of the Consumer Movement in the United States[5]
period new marketplace features new media popular concern key people key publications key organizations key legislation end of era
1900-1915 national distribution, product branding Newspaper, Magazine Food safety, Drug safety, stopping anti-competitive practices Upton Sinclair, Harvey Wiley The Jungle National Consumers League Pure Food and Drug Act, Wholesome Meat Act, Federal Trade Commission Act World War I
1920s-30s Mass production, Home appliance, Advertising using images Radio Criticism of advertising due to non-objective information, lack of representation in advertising regulation Stuart Chase, Frederick J. Schlink, Arthur Kallet, Colston Warne Your Money's Worth, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs Consumers Union, Consumers' Research, rural electrical cooperative organizations Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Wheeler–Lea Act World War II
1960s-70s Product proliferation, personal credit, complex new technology, greatly expanded international trade Television Safety standards, advertising's social impact, consumer redress for damage Ralph Nader, Esther Peterson, Michael Pertschuk, Sidney M. Wolfe Unsafe at Any Speed, The Poor Pay More Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, American Council on Consumer Interests National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, Truth in Lending Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, Magnuson–Moss Warranty Act Presidency of Ronald Reagan

Early corporate opposition

During the Recession of 1937–1938 public confidence in business was low and the new criticism from consumer groups weakened trust in advertising, media, and branded goods. The idea that the public were the "guinea pigs" on whom corporations tested products was an idea which spread after the publication of 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, and industry sought to counter it and the general concept of consumer regulation over industry to restore market confidence. In 1938 Hearst Corporation ran an advertisement suggesting that people who purchase goods which were nationally distributed and advertised were not "guinea pigs", and from 1934–1939 Collier-Crowell executive Anna Steese Richardson toured to readers of Woman's Home Companion as an opponent of consumer groups and an advocate of corporate-managed equivalents of consumer organizations.[6] To compete with grassroots efforts, various other corporate interests likewise set up their own consumer information centers, including New York Herald Tribune's product-testing institute, McCall's institute explicitly designed to counter Consumers Union and Consumers' Research, Sears consumer outreach lectures, N. W. Ayer & Son's Institute on Consumer Relations, and Macy's Bureau of Standards McGovern 2006, p. 315, citing

In response to the trend of corporate movement into the field of consumer regulation of the marketplace, Robert Staughton Lynd spoke for consumer advocacy, stating that "the whole consumer movement can be aborted if the present plans of manufacturing and retailing trade associations to set up "kept" consumer pressure groups (are) allowed to go forward unchecked."[9] Eventually, industry and companies began to state citizens and organizations who criticized corporations were un-American and Communist.


African economies are heavily influenced by multinational corporations and lending institutions which have encouraged export-oriented industrialization.[10] To become more attractive to investment in these circumstances many governments become willing to tolerate unfavorable conditions such as anti-competitive practices, receiving lower quality imports than would be acceptable in other markets, enduring misleading product claims, and enduring increased exposure to hazardous waste.[10] The majority of African countries implement the World Bank's structural adjustment programs to increase their attractiveness for international trade.[10] Primary concerns for African consumers are balancing competitive business practices to give them access to products while discouraging unethical business conduct.[10] The problems of African consumers are connected to other social problems of the region including extreme poverty, over-consumption of natural resources, the African refugee crisis, unstable employment, and the legacies of centuries of African slave trade.[10]

Most of the members of the Southern African Development Community are members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.[10] In Western Africa countries organize through the Economic Community of West African States.[10] These and other organizations were founded to promote the development of markets and improve quality of life, but there is some history of fragmentation of organizations, duplication of efforts, and destructive competition between such organizations.[10] The failure to settle disagreements and integrate the missions of various institutions contributes, along with other infrastructure problems, to inhibition of intraregional trade.[10]

The consumer movement in Africa came into being over time as a result of three factors: the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the deregulation of markets by governments which are implementing structural adjustments, and the influence of external activist organizations like Consumers International supporting community efforts to promote consumer protection.[10] The lessening influence of the Soviet Union made economies open to change, structural adjustments took governmental control out of markets, and activist groups put community control into markets.[10] Consumer organizations in Africa often call for global integration of foreign economies into Africa and increased external consumption of Africa goods to improve local markets.[10] They are frequently combined with human rights interests to increase democratization, economic development, and women's rights.[10] The marketplace in Africa does not naturally promote economic democracy to the extent markets elsewhere would because frequently African markets provide few choices, and many activist groups tie the right to access goods with the right to enjoy benefits of democracy and economic development.[10]

The Kenya Consumers' Organization, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, the Housewives League in South Africa, and the Institute for Consumer Protection in Mauritius are among the most prominent and oldest of consumer organizations, and these and most others formed before the late 1970s were founded by women.[10] The organizations were vehicles to give women more equal access to basic goods and services and to connect women socially.[10] In other places, consumer groups often partner with women's organizations.[10] In 1998 two Consumers International conferences where held in Africa - an English conference was in Nairobi in June and attended by 100 participants from 11 African nations, and a French conference was in Dakar in November with participants from 16 West and Central African countries.[11] The English language conference resulted in the publication of a declaration called "Consumers in Africa".[12][13]

The contemporary consumer movement is among the fastest-growing social movements in Africa today.[10] One indicator of this is membership of African consumer groups into Consumers International; in 1991, forty African countries had no representation in this network.[10] Environmental Development Action in the Third World collaborated with Consumer International until 1994 and by 1995, only 15 countries were not participating and many countries had made stronger commitments to participation in the organized network.[10] In 1994 50 delegates from Africa participated in the annual Consumers International World Congress and as a result participated in the development of the Codex Alimentarius, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and World Trade Organization issues.[10] Participation in Consumers International has otherwise raised the profile of various consumer groups, such as Mali's Association des Consommateurs du Mali (ASCOMA) and Senegal's Association de Defense des Usagers de l'Eau l'Electricite, les Telecommunications et les Services (ADEETelS) have both had representation in government policy making.[10]


Scholars most commonly view the modern consumer movement in India from two perspectives - that of consumer activism and that of business self-regulation.[14] There is tradition in India which says that consideration for consumer rights began in the Vedic Period, and in these narratives, laws encourage merchants to practice honesty and integrity in business.[14] Most discussion about India's consumer activism starts with a description of the Indian independence movement.[14] At this time Gandhi and other leaders protested taxation of basic consumer products, such as during the Salt March, and encouraged people to make their own goods at home, as with the Khādī movement to promote spinning thread and weaving one's own textiles. These actions were to raise awareness that consumer purchase decisions fund the source of India's political control.

Gandhi promoted the idea that businesses have a trustee role in being responsible to the customers, workers, shareholders, and their community.[14] In particular, Gandhi said that "A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent upon us. We are dependent upon him. He is not an interruption in our work - he is the purpose of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to serve him".[14] United States consumer advocate Ralph Nader called Gandhi "the greatest consumer advocate the world has seen" for advancing the concept that commercial enterprise should serve the consumer and that the consumer should expect to be served by business.[14] Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, two great proponents of Gandhi's philosophy, and V. V. Giri and Lal Bahadur Shastri, contemporary Indian president and prime minister, similarly expected the business community to regulate itself as an expression of responsibility to contribute to society.[14] These ideas were developed by some business leaders. In July 1966 in Bombay some people founded the Fair Trade Practice Association, which was later renamed the Council for Fair Business Practice.[14] This is now seen as a sincere effort toward promoting business self-regulation, despite consumer activists' criticism that self-regulation would not provide sufficient protection to consumers.[14]

From the perspective of consumer activism, the Planning Commission backed the foundation of the Indian Association of Consumers in 1956 in Delhi to be a national base for consumer interests.[14] For various reasons, it was not effective in achieving its goals.[14] Other organizations were established in the 1960 in various places in India but none were effective in achieving community organization.[14] Leading on past failures, in Bombay in 1966 nine female homemakers founded the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI) which remains one of India's most important consumer organizations.[14] The most powerful consumer organization in India is the Consumer Education and Research Center (CERC), founded in 1978 in Ahmedabad as part of the "social action litigation movement".[14] At that time in society, courts started recognizing social workers and public interest groups as consultants on behalf of individuals or classes of people whose rights had been violated but who could not easily speak for themselves.[14] Since its founding CERC has become among the most successful consumer organizations of the developing world in terms of its achievements of litigating on behalf of consumers.[14] The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 was mostly a result of intensive lobbying by CERC and CGSI.[14]

In 1991 the Economic liberalisation in India radically changed the Indian marketplace by opening India to foreign trade and foreign investment.


  1. 1 2 3 Brobeck 1990, p. xvi.
  2. 1 2 3 Warne 1993, p. xi.
  3. 1 2 Warne 1993, p. 15.
  4. Warne 1993, p. 1.
  5. Mayer 1989, p. 13.
  6. McGovern 2006, pp. 314–317, citing
    • Advertisement by American Druggist Magazine (November 1938). "Who's a guinea pig?". Hearst's International Cosmopolitan. 105 (5): 103. Despite sensational, destructive propaganda, I know for example, that when I buy nationally known drug products I don't have to wonder about their quality, purity, and ability to give me my money's worth in satisfaction. The real guinea pigs are the people who experiment - take chances - with products which are NOT backed by a well-known house... I know that responsible publishers protect me further by refusing to accept the advertising of products which fail to pass tests for quality and performance... the better part of buying wisdom is to prefer the products you see regularly advertised.
    • Richardson, Anna Steese (April 1935). "An Advertising Odyssey". Advertising and Selling. Box 512 File 16.34. Consumers' Research Papers, Alexander Library at Rutgers University.
    • "The Consumer Menace". Printer's Ink. 181 (5): 96. November 4, 1937.
    • Sorenson, Helen (c. 1941). Consumer Movement in the United States. pp. 154–178. - book publication details lacking
  7. McGovern 2006, p. 321 McGovern uses the description "anti-guinea pig" to describe Sokolsky's book, and cites
    • "Defense". Tide. 12 (21): 26. November 1, 1938.
    • " the Editor". Advertising and Selling. 32 (8): 12, 66. August 1939.
    • Sklar, S.H.; Walker, Paul (January 1, 1938). Business Finds its Voice. Harper & Brothers. pp. 22–23. ASIN B008O7XASU.
  8. McGovern 2006, p. 315, citing "Consumers Union Reports". 2 (6). July 1937. and others
  9. McGovern 2006, p. 316, citing Lynd, Robert S. (May 16, 1937). "Consumer Groups at Critical Stage". The New York Times.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Gwitira, Joshua C (1997). "African Consumer Movement". In Brobeck, Stephen. Encyclopedia of the consumer movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. pp. 11–19. ISBN 0874369878.
  11. Sim 1991, p. 61.
  12. Sim 1991, p. 69-70.
  13. attendees of IOCU conference (14–18 June 1988). Consumers in Africa: Meeting the Challenge (Report). Consumers International.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 Singh, Gurjeet (1997). "Indian Consumer Movement". In Brobeck, Stephen. Encyclopedia of the consumer movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. pp. 312–316. ISBN 0874369878.


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