Consumer movement history
A movement that began developing in the early 20th century, dedicated to protecting the rights of consumers against big business. The study of consumers became more important after the 1920s, when it became clear that 67 percent of the American economy was driven by consumption. Since that time, the study of consumer behavior and attitudes and their effect on the economy has evolved into a systematic and rigorous discipline, and many laws have been written to protect what are considered fundamental consumer rights.
The consumer movement began during the Progressive Era, tracing its intellectual origins to the writings of the MUCKRAKERS. At the time, the emphasis was on the nature of big business and the apparent disregard that it displayed toward ordinary citizens. The writings of Ida Tarbell, Louis BRANDEIS, Frank Norris, Gustavus Myers, and others cut across different literary genres, displaying the nature of various businesses ranging from Standard Oil to the meatpacking industry and illustrating the helplessness of the individual in the face of corporate power. One of the first organizations to emphasize the link between consumers and workers was Florence Kelley’s National Consumers’ League, founded in 1899. The social writings of the Progressives also helped the labor movement establish better working conditions, which were organizing during the same period.
After World War I, the movement took a back seat to the bull market of the 1920s. After the 1929 crash, it was resurrected in the securities and banking laws of the NEW DEAL, which sought to offer protection to bank depositors and investors. The clear lack of social institutions capable of offering basic services during the early years of the Great Depression was the impetus behind many New Deal laws passed during the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The purpose of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 was to help stimulate economic activity by forging links between labor and management, taking some of the impetus out of the labor and consumer movements. The act was declared unconstitutional in 1935. Throughout this period, the spirit of the consumer movement was closely related to the ANTITRUST movement. The ROBINSON-PATMAN ACT was passed in 1937 to protect small storekeepers and consumers from the corporate power of the new retail CHAIN STORES being created nationwide, although the law proved relatively ineffective. During the Depression and World War II the movement was mostly quiet, with most political and economic forces galvanized to the recovery and war efforts.
In 1936, the Consumers Union was founded. The private organization began testing consumer products for quality and safety and published the magazine Consumer Reports. The magazine was dedicated to protecting the consumer from deceit and low quality; the slogan “let the buyer beware” was in vogue at the time and underscored the importance of intelligent consumer behavior. The movement picked up considerable emphasis with the publication of Ralph NADER’s Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, an expose of the safety faults of the Chevrolet Corvair. Nader later successfully sued GENERAL MOTORS for invasion of privacy after the company investigated him because of the book. He later founded several consumer groups. Following in his footsteps, several consumer organizations were established, including the Consumer Federation of America (1968) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1972).
One manufacturing process that caused serious problems stimulated the consumer movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Planned obsolescence became an operational manufacturing concept, designed to stimulate the demand for manufactured goods. It began with the marketing of automobiles in the 1920s. Alfred SLOAN introduced the practice at General Motors. The concept was later adopted by many manufacturers, who used it as a marketing tool to convey the impression that their new products were different, and better, than previous models. Changing models frequently also placed considerable pressure on smaller competitors to convey the same message to their customers and could often be extremely expensive for them.
The practice came under considerable scrutiny when Vance Packard exposed the concept in his book The Waste Makers in 1960. In it, he described how manufacturers purposely designed many products to deteriorate prematurely so that customers would replace them. Many industries, including the automobile industry, changed models every year, mostly in design rather than substantive improvements, requiring a great deal of capital investment by the manufacturers. Smaller manufacturers, unable to raise funds for design improvements, were often faced with declining market share and eventual BANKRUPTCY because they were not able to compete.
Planned obsolescence also became an issue in some antitrust actions for many of the same reasons. Were manufacturers conspiring to change models, forcing smaller competitors out of business, or were they simply introducing periodic changes in their products to stimulate sales when the new product was essentially no better than its predecessor?
The consumer movement became very successful and helped change the old slogan “let the buyer beware” to “let the seller beware.” The state and federal laws that were passed during the 1970s also helped give rise to the use of the class action lawsuit as a weapon against large companies producing inferior or dangerous products.
See also BETTER BUSINESS BUREAUS; NATIONAL RECOVERY ADMINISTRATION.
- Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.
- Packard, Vance. The Waste Makers. New York: David McKay, 1960.
- Pertschuk, Michael. Revolt against Regulation: The Rise and Pause of the Consumer Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
- Satterthwaite, Ann. Going Shopping: Consumer Choices and Community Consequences. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.
- Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. New York: Pantheon, 1989.