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Americanisation in 20th Century Europe: business, culture, politics. Volume 2

 | 
Nick Tiratsoo
, 
Mathias Kipping

Americanisation, British consumerism and the International Organisation of consumers Unions

Matthew Hilton

Résumé

Cet article étudie le développement du consumérisme organisé en Grande-Bretagne et dans l’Organisation Internationale des Associations de Consommateurs (IOCU, créée en 1960). Il examine dans quelle mesure les consommateurs eux-mêmes ont joué un rôle dans l’Américanisation. Il montre que le consumérisme britannique a fait appel autant aux idéaux socio-démocrates européens qu’aux types de consumérisme basé sur les tests comparatifs qui s’est développé d’abord aux États-Unis. Ces traditions différentes se retrouvèrent alors dans les ordres du jour de l’IOCU de même que les intérêts des diverses autres associations nationales de consommateurs les enrichirent aussi. Il faut insister cependant sur le fait qu’il n’existait pas de notion statique du consumérisme américain, ni d’idée précise sur ce qu’était exactement l’« Amérique » : de fait, les États-Unis eux-mêmes ont connu une grande variété de politiques de consommation.

Texte intégral

consumerism in the united states

  • 1 S. Chase & F. J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer’s Dollar, New Yo (...)
  • 2 C. McGovern, “Consumption and citizenship in the United States, 1900-1940”, in S. Strasser, C. McGo (...)
  • 3 L. Cohen, “Citizens and consumers in the United States in the century of mass consumption”, in M. D (...)
  • 4 L. Cohen, “The New Deal State and the making of citzen consumers”, in Strasser, McGovern and Judt 1 (...)
  • 5 G. Cross, An All-Consuming Century, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 135.

1Organisations of consumers which engage in the testing of different branded goods for the benefit of subscribing members began in the United States. In 1927, a civil servant for the Labor Bureau, Stuart Chase, and an engineer, F. J. Schlink, published Your Money’s Worth, a critique of the exploitation of the consumer in the modem marketplace.1 Drawing on Veblen-esque attacks on consumption as well as anti-trust traditions within American politics, the book epitomised a desire to empower the consumer that was one of the founding principles of Consumers’ Research, founded in the same year. The organisation embodied a new spirit of what Charles McGovern has called “consumer republicanism” or consumer citizenship: “a form of ideal Jeffersonian independence not only in the marketplace but also in society at large – each individual consumer required and deserved independent and scientifically valid information about goods and purchasing”.2 Consumers’ Research sought to overcome the ignorance of the consumer and make him or her adept at assessing the quality of goods while at the same time maintaining a healthy distance from modem commercial values. Its publication, Consumers’ Research Bulletin, proved an inspiration, and in the 1930s several other consumer organisations were created, while Roosevelt’s New Deal programme incorporated the consumer as citizen into the national administration.3 The most famous and lasting of these new groups was Consumers Union, formed in 1936, which was to publish its assessments of value for money in Consumer Reports. Consumers Union was created because of the internal divisions at Consumers’ Research which had seen Schlink attempt to focus consumerism on product testing rather than broader social and economic issues. According to Lizabeth Cohen, “although highly critical of the abuse of consumers, particularly by advertisers, these consumer advocates did not call for any major structural changes in the economy or government. Rather, they hoped that scientific research into product quality would allow the free market to work better, by creating more knowledgeable consumers to counterbalance exploitative merchandisers”.4 Schlink in fact would later denounce his former radical colleagues at Consumers’ Research as Marxists. Thus, organised consumerism, or at least that developed in America after the initial radicalism of the late 1920s, was essentially pro- rather than anti-market. As Gary Cross has argued, “this narrowing of the scope of consumer rights to the privilege of being informed about the pricing and attributes of goods has tended to reinforce both the individualism and the materialism of American consumption”.5

2In this brief history of US consumerism it is clear that although comparative-testing consumerism had come to dominate by the 1950s, it had done so only after eclipsing various other forms of consumer action. Consumerism could mean many things to many people, from the anti-trust sentiments in the 1911 Sherman Act, to the notions of consumer-citizenship advocated in the New Deal era, and even the fight for a living wage among trade unionists. From the 1950s, too, comparative testing consumerism would compete with other movements in defense of the consumer interest: Vance Packard and J. K. Galbraith’s liberal-left critique of advertising and affluence; Ralph Nader’s aggressive attacks on the dangerous manufacturing policies of US business; and the consolidation of a legal System that situated consumers as forceful litigants in class action suits. If we are to trace the influence of America in the spread of organised consumerism around the world, then we must acknowledge, as many papers in this volume do, that there is no such monolithic entity that can be identified as ‘the American model’. Instead, in case studies which seek to examine ‘cultural transfers in the economic sphere’, Americanisation must be seen not simply as the straightforward propagation of a state-sanctioned notion of America, but as a series of competing models from which other countries adapt, select, draw upon and reject. Without wishing to over-emphasise the heterogeneity of American economic and cultural institutions, there is a strong case to be made for a notion of Americanisation that recognises that country’s own internal political processes and developments. Just as scholars identify negotiation at the interface between US and other States’ interests, so too must we see America itself as an arena for the interplay of competing political and cultural ideas.

international consumerism

  • 6 F. G. Sim, IOCU on Record: A Documentary History of the International Organisation of Consumers Uni (...)

3Nevertheless, in a crucial period in the development of organised global consumerism, it was the consumerism of comparative testing and rational choice that predominated. In the 1950s, affluence, the increased technical specifications of consumer goods, and the expansion of commercial advertising (and the consequent attacks upon it), led to the real growth in organised consumerism. By 1957, Consumer Reports had a circulation of 800,000. Moreover, it was being scrutinised by consumer activists in Europe. By the end of 1959 four comparative testing consumer organisations had been founded in Europe: the Consumers’ Association in the UK, Consumentenbond in the Netherlands, the Union Belge des Consommateurs in Belgium and the Union Fédérale de la Consommation in France. One year later, the Australasian Consumers’ Association started in Sydney. These independent groups were in addition to the other voluntary associations of housewives found all over Europe and the many government-sponsored consumer councils which had also begun to emerge, especially in Scandinavia. However, it was the comparative testing organisations that were to seek international links. In 1958, Elizabeth Schadee of the Dutch Consumentenbond and Caspar Brook of the UK Consumers’ Association discussed opportunities for international collaboration. They approached Colston Warne of the US Consumers’ Union who enthusiastically embraced the project and who was able to devote $10,000 of his organisation's money to setting up an international body. In the spring of 1960 the First International Conference on Consumer Testing was held to discuss opportunities for future collaborative efforts. A Technical Exchange Committee was established and a range of goods identified where the pooling of testing facilities would be beneficial to all concerned. More significant still was the creation of the International Organisation of Consumers’ Unions (IOCU) on 1 April 1960. On its Council sat the representatives of the four comparative testing organisations that had been largely founded on the American model, as well as Colston Warne of the US Consumers’ Union. The original aims of the new body were simply to extend the comparative testing type of consumerism: “It was to act as a clearing house for information on test programmes, methods and results; to regulate the use of ratings and reprints of materials of member organisations; and to organise international meetings to promote consumer testing”.6

  • 7 IOCU, Knowledge is Power: Consumer Goals in the 1970s. Proceedings of the 6th Biennial World Confer (...)
  • 8 IOCU, Consumer Power in the Nineties: Proceedings of the Thirteenth IOCU World Congress, London, IO (...)
  • 9 - Consumers International, Annual Report, 1999, London, Consumers’ International, p. 37-41.

4The IOCU’s growth was impressive. Although in 1970 the Council still consisted of the cote of the five founding members, five further organisations had become co-opted members (Forbrukerrådet of Norway, Forbrugerrådet of Denmark, Statens Konsumentråd of Sweden, the Consumer Council of the UK and Stiftung Warentest of West Germany) and another four were elected members (Verein für Konsumenteninformation of Austria, the Consumers Institute of New Zealand, the Israeli Consumers’ Association and the Consumers’ Association of Canada). A further 16 Associate members and 23 Corresponding members ensured that organised consumerism now reached into Asia, Africa and Latin America, if only into the richest nations of these areas.7 By 1990, however, the IOCU had extended well beyond the affluent West. The Council now consisted of representatives of most Western European states, but also of consumer organisations in Argentina, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Mauritius, Mexico, Poland and South Korea. An Executive had been formed which showed the domination of the founding members (excluding Belgium) though even here South Korea and Mauritius were represented and the Presidency was held by Erna Witoelar of the Yayasan Lembaga Konsumen, Indonesia.8 Today, the IOCU is called Consumers International, and in November of 2000 it held its 16th World Congress in Durban, South Africa. Its headquarters are in London, but there are thriving regional offices in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Incredibly, in 1999 it had 253 members from 115 different countries which ranged from all the States of the western world to post-communist Eastern Europe and a whole collection of developing States (China, Chad, Guatemala, El Salvador, Gabon, Nigeria, Malawi and Burkina Faso) which, on first instinct, one might suppose had other interests that needed defending than those of consumers.9

the development of consumer rights

5In membership and organisational terms, the American Consumers’ Union has proved extremely successful and it appears to have spread a version of consumerism that supports independent consumers and aims to improve rather than structurally alter the marketplace. Yet almost as soon as the IOCU was set up, it was apparent that comparative testing was not the only type of consumerism in the US. In March 1962, President Kennedy made a significant speech in the history of consumer protection. In it, he outlined four basic consumer rights that should act as the guiding principles for legislative and voluntary action:

  1. The right to safety

  2. The right to be informed

  3. The right to choose

  4. The right to be heard

6The IOCU immediately incorporated these four rights as its own raison d’être, binding its member organisations to the pursuit of consumer protection ideals articulated and advanced from within a changing US context. All four consumer rights are rights for the individual, an extension of American models of rights-based liberalism. Their immediate incorporation into IOCU policy suggests a process of Americanisation, but one which recognises the ongoing development of America itself. And it is a process of Americanisation that accepts the ability of actors to play a part in the selection of which ‘cultural transfers’ are to take place within their economic institutions. It might not have been in the form of deliberate economic aid, the control of financial institutions, the propagation of American industrial and political ideas, but consumerism can be seen as a process of Americanisation conducted by consumers themselves. Here, it is appropriate to ask about the role organised consumerism has played in the development of globalisation. Have the IOCU and consumer organisations formulated a notion of the consumer as a rational, utility-maximising individual, a notion of citizenship in which the agent is reduced to a purely economic subjectivity? Has this notion of the consumer thereby eased the development of multinational enterprise which, fundamentally, imagines the consumer in a similar light – a purely economic being for whom questions of morality, political purpose, aesthetics and social welfare are irrelevant? Has organised consumerism prepared the way, therefore, for those other institutions – the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, and the World Bank – more usually associated with Americanisation and globalisation? This paper examines the development of organised consumerism outside of the US by focusing on a case study of consumerism in Britain. It will argue that beyond an immediate period in which consumer bodies seemed to follow directly the US model encapsulated in the Consumers Union, British consumerism also drew inspiration from European social democratic ideas which changed the focus of consumerism from that of affluence to poverty. Furthermore, the social issues raised by consumer protection debates from around the world have subsequently altered the ideological leanings of the IOCU. It still adopts Kennedy’s rights-based model of consumerism, but it has extended this to take into account the multitude of consumer interests emerging out of different national contexts.

the uk consumers’ association

  • 10 First Annual Report, 1957-1958, p. 2, Third Annual Report, 1960-1961, p. 5, box 30, Consumers Assoc (...)

7Despite the existence of several other consumer organisations in the late-Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries, comparative testing consumerism did not begin in Britain until 1956. The creation of several professional and politically-motivated individuals, the Consumers’ Association (CA) was led in its formative years by Michael Young, who made available a garage at his Bethnal Green Institute for Community Studies to use as a first office. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, CA focussed on comparative testing and the provision of ‘best buy’ advice to its subscribers, a formula that was to prove extremely successful. By the end of its first year, CA had received free publicity in over 300 publications and had 47,000 members paying an annual subscription of 10s. By the end of March 1961, there were already a quarter of a million members, and over half a million by the beginning of the 1970s. By 1987, membership figures would peak at just over one million.10

  • 11 New Outlook: A Liberal Magazine, 21 July 1963, p. 19-21; G. Smith, The Consumer Interest, London, J (...)
  • 12 Box 27, CAA; E. Roberts, “Consumer protection in foodstuffs”, speech delivered in the Food and Nutr (...)
  • 13 The remaining 4 per cent were categorised as ‘other’. See Who reads Which?’, article for New Societ (...)
  • 14 Consumer Intelligence Unit (CIU), “Profile of Subscribers”, October 2000, internal CA document.

8CA also encouraged the creation of local consumer groups beginning with the establishment of Oxford Consumers’ Group in 1961. By 1963 there were nearly 50 groups and 5,000 members, with the movement peaking in 1967 when there were 100 groups with a combined total membership of 18,000, all affiliated to the National Federation of Consumer Groups.11 The members of these organisations and of CA itself were almost wholly middle-class – indeed their socio-economic status was perhaps the only unifying factor for a diverse group of subscribers of whom many would have disliked CA extending its activities beyond the realm of comparative testing. Members tended to be readers of The Times, Guardian, Observer, Spectator.; and Economist; by contrast, reports on the activities of CA in the pages of the Daily Mirror brought few, if any, new members.12 According to a 1960 survey, 49 per cent of members were “professional” (with annual incomes over £1,000), 40 per cent were “lower professional” or junior managerial, leaving just 7 per cent from the skilled or semi-skilled working class.13 Despite occasional efforts to reach consumers on lower incomes over successive decades, the membership has remained stubbornly middle-class: an October 2000 study still found that Which? subscribers were “not representative of the population generally”, being “more likely to be older, on higher incomes and in social grades AB”.14

  • 15 G. Borrie, The Development of Consumer Law and Policy, London, Stevens & Sons, 1984; Smith 1982.
  • 16 Committee on Consumer Protection, Final Report, cmnd. 1781, London, HMSO, 1962, p. 269.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 1.
  • 18 Committee on Consumer Protection, Interim Report, cmnd. 1011, London, HMSO, 1960, p. 5.

9Disputes over the political or campaigning direction of CA were also avoided through the extension of government activity into consumer protection in the 1960s, freeing the CA to focus on testing. However, this extension of government activity into consumer affairs did not involve any real clash with the notion of the consumer as rational individual as embraced in the reports of Which?. The Molony Committee on Consumer Protection published its final report in 1962. This led directly to the creation of the Consumer Council in 1963 and the Trades Descriptions Act of 1968 which, in turn, were followed by a flurry of legislation in the 1970s that included the 1973 Fait Trading Act, the 1974 Consumer Credit Act, the 1977 Restrictive Trade Practices Act and the 1978 Consumer Safety Act.15 Molony, however, offered no substantial reinterpretation of the consumer that harked back to the increasingly forgotten ‘consumer republicanism’ of 1920s America. Indeed, the productivist bias of the members of the Committee meant that the aim was merely to “fortify” the existing System of consumer protection without “significantly altering” it.16 They offered no radical re-interpretation of the consumer, synonymously interchanging the term with that of “shopper”, who they defined as an essentially economic agent: “one who purchases (or hire purchases) goods for private use or consumption”.17 Instead they heaped praise on British industry, criticising only a “small minority” of manufacturers or “irresponsible importers” who too readily accepted inferior foreign goods.18

the consumer council, 1963-1970

  • 19 Consumer Council, Minutes, 1963-1970, AJ 1 1-10, Public Record Office (hereafter PRO); Consumer Cou (...)

10A similar analysis might be made of the Consumer Council set up in 1963 and which existed on a limited budget until 1970. Politically, the Council sought to protect the consumer while at the same time promoting a notion of the consumer as individual who needed to be educated in order to improve his or her market efficiency.19 Solutions to market failure were only to involve rarely direct government intervention; consumers instead were to be taught to be able to identify abuse, fraud and deception so that little recourse would be needed to the Trade Descriptions Act. It never really established a view that contradicted its generally pro-competition message which in itself was not greatly at odds with the businesses with whom the Council was sometimes opposed. That it did antagonise manufacturers was only in those instances of outright market abuse or commercial tradition which restricted the market. In defending the consumer, the Council therefore urged a greater liberalisation of the market. And this was a liberalisation that must be read as narrow, in the sense that it took no account of aesthetics, morality, formal political alliances, or the interests and concerns of other members of society.

  • 20 Focus, 1 (1), 1966, p. 13-16; Focus, 1 (4), 1966, p. 10-11; Focus, 1 (10), 1966, p. 2 (For a list o (...)
  • 21 Focus, 1 (1), 1966, p. 9-12; Focus, 1 (2), 1966, p. 14; Focus, 1 (4), 1966, p. 18.
  • 22 Focus, 1 (1), 1966, p. 6.
  • 23 Focus, 5 (9), 1970, p. 6-7; Focus, 5 (2), 1970, p. 9-12.
  • 24 Focus, 2 (2), 1968, p. 2-5: Focus, 4 (10), 1969, p. 1; Focus, 5 (4), 1970, p. 19-22; Focus, 5 (8), (...)

11But what is apparent is that during the life of the Consumer Council, it became increasingly apparent to its salaried staff, if not the actual council members, that a straightforward focus on the empowering of the individual consumer was insufficient to resolve the perceived inequities of the marketplace. In its magazine Focus, Council staff found an outlet for their frustration over their inability to deal with consumer complaints and their inability to reform government services in the consumer interest. Occasionally staff clashed with the voluntary members of the Council, as they extended the scope of the Council’s interests. Focus mixed articles on specific issues, such as medical advertising, the cost of eggs to poorer consumers, or the poor conditions of football stadia,20 with general discussions of the problems of existing weights and measures legislation, the advantages of a US-style Better Business Bureau and the need for more local authority consumer protection officers.21 It attempted to present itself as the spearhead of the entire consumer movement in the UK through, for example, providing an outlet for news of all the local consumer groups that proliferated in the 1960s as well as trying to encourage more to be set up.22 It celebrated prominent consumer activists such as Ralph Nader, heralded as the “world’s greatest consumer”, an “advocate, muckraker and crusader” and a “peaceful revolutionary”.23 And it allowed a regular outlet for the Council’s campaigning voice, such as in the series of articles which called for an overhaul of the legal System or, in particular, the creation of small claims courts that would enable consumers to seek redress over minor problems without incurring the considerable expenses usually associated with the recourse to law.24

  • 25 The Development of Consumer Advice Centres in the UK, 1978, p. 6, box 27, CAA.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 4; The Need for Consumer Advice Centres, 1975, box 27, CAA; Smith 1982: 14.

12The articles in Focus were not necessarily backed up with political success – their significance lies in their reflection of a gradual broadening of consumerism which emerged out of the realisation that everyday consumer problems required much more than the empowering of the individual. The CA, too, had begun to realise this and there was a slow but gradual extension of its activities in the 1960s. The Research Institute for Consumers Affairs was set up in 1961 by CA as an independent charity to investigate consumer problems beyond obtaining immediate value-for-money. Its initial investigations included in-depth studies of general medical practice, estate agents, the co-operative movement, town planning, safety concerns over children’s toys and motor vehicles and the specific problems of particular groups of consumers such as the elderly. CA also began providing detailed evidence to various government investigations, such as the Crowther Committee on Consumer Credit in 1969, and from the late 1960s, it encouraged the establishment of local consumer advice centres following successful experiments in Vienna and Berlin. The first of these, in the racially and socially mixed Kentish Town, demonstrated the desire to provide “pre-shopping counselling” and information to those who were least likely to buy Which?, that is, those “most likely to be intimidated by official surroundings and formal procedures”.25 Many local authorities took over these centres in the 1970s and they were to prove remarkably successful. Before the Conservative government cut central spending in 1979 there were 200 consumer advice centres in all parts of the UK.26

  • 27 Director-General of Fair Trading, Annual Report, November 1973-December 1974, London, HMSO, 1975; J (...)
  • 28 J. Mitchell, “Management and the consumer movement”, Journal of General Management, 3 (4), 1976, p. (...)
  • 29 This is perhaps best exemplified by the Conservative’s first appointment to the position of Directo (...)

13The advice centres were just one indicator of a growing consumer consciousness in Britain that witnessed an attendant expansion of ‘consumerism’. When, in 1970, the Conservatives abolished the Consumer Council, they were widely condemned in the press. CA immediately realised that it now formed the largest and most effective outlet for the consumer voice and it consequently expanded its political campaigning role. The Conservatives soon performed an about-turn in their consumer policy, appointing Geoffrey Howe as Minister for Consumer Affairs (within the Department of Trade and Industry) in 1972 and creating the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in 1973, both of which were direct responses to the public outcry that had greeted their earlier attitude to the Consumer Council. The OFT would seek voluntary methods of market regulation over government intervention on behalf of the collective mass of consumers.27 According to Jeremy Mitchell, long time consumer policy worker for CA, the First phase of consumerism up to the 1970s aimed at more information with protection as a secondary objective.28 The OFT therefore signified a significant break from the earlier informationalist consumerism and, in principle at least, owed its inspiration not to a corporatist model of consumer protection from the US, but from the Ombusdman tradition of Sweden. Accordingly, the Director-General of the OFT was empowered to intervene directly to check trade abuses, a substantial redirection of the state’s role in consumer affairs, though in practice, Director-Generals were selected who still very much regarded the consumer as an economic and rational individual unit.29

the national council, 1975 to the present

  • 30 Quoted in M. H. Winchup, Consumer Legislation in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland: A (...)
  • 31 R. Wraith, The Consumer Cause: A Short Account of its Organisation, Power and Importance, London, R (...)
  • 32 Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, National Consumers’ Agency, cmnd. 5726, London, HMSO, (...)

14The journalist Adam Raphael, writing in the Guardian, claimed that the Labour Party was angry not to have earlier boarded “this vote-winning bandwagon”, but when it next came to power it certainly made amends.30 The Conservatives still held on to a notion of the consumer as rational individual who only needed more information in order to rectify the imbalances of the market, but the Labour Party responded directly to the more socially-aware consumerism of the type that had supported the advice centres. After coming to power, it upgraded consumer representation in government by establishing a Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in March 1974, the very act of which seemed to confirm that consumers had an important role to play in inflation policy, a position deliberately denied by the Conservatives.31 Labour’s most significant contribution to the redevelopment of consumerism was, however, the establishment of the National Consumer Council (NCC) in 1975. The NCC had its immediate origins in a government White Paper of 1974 which explicitly stated that consumers had as much a right to a say in State affairs as either the Trade Union Congress or Confederation of British Industry and, as such, should have a central agency serving their purposes. Unlike the earlier Consumer Council of 1963, the members of the NCC were to stand as direct representatives of the consumer movement, in recognition of organised consumerism’s political legitimacy, and they were to act deliberately as a “partisan body”. Crucially, the White Paper rejected the assumption of equality between buyer and seller that the OFT strove for, and insisted on the need for a body to speak for the “inarticulate and disadvantaged”, or those who seemed not to possess the full individual skills of rational liberal citizenship.32

  • 33 NCC, The Fourth Right of Citizenship: A Review of Local Advice Centres, London, NCC, 1977.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 6; M. Young, “Foreword”, in M. Minogue (ed.), A Consumers Guide to Local Government, Lond (...)
  • 35 F. Williams, “Introduction”, in F. Williams (ed.), Why the Poor Pay More, London, Macmillan, 1977, (...)
  • 36 NCC, Annual Report, 1975-1976, London, NCC, 1976, p. 9.
  • 37 Williams 1977: 237.
  • 38 R. Hattersley, “Foreword”, in NCC, Annual Report, 1976-1977, London, NCC, 1977.

15The NCC was quick to set out its philosophy, much of which was encapsulated in its stress on education and information, two services said to constitute “the fourth right of citizenship”.33 If T. H. Marshall would have included these within his third stage of citizenship (social rights), Michael Young, the NCC’s first chair, believed them so crucial to the “lifeblood of democratic government” that they warranted separate recognition especially since “without the right to education and information the other three sets of rights are liable to be hollow shams”.34 But education and information did not mean only the ability to assess individually the relative merits of various consumer durables, it also meant overcoming the problems of consumer detriment, or the structural inequalities which forced the poor to pay more for their goods, either through ignorance of market opportunities or the inability to buy in bulk or budget effectively on a low weekly wage.35 It is in the suggested solutions to consumer detriment that the NCC’s version of consumerism becomes most apparent. It proposed a number of self-help voluntary measures, such as the formation of bulk-buying clubs, credit unions and housing co-operatives in order to obtain greater value for money, but it also proposed that the State should become more involved in consumer decisions. Rather than expecting the consumer to seek out information, the state, through agencies such as Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, Consumer Advice Centres, legal advice centres, and welfare rights agencies, should work to ensure that information reached the disenfranchised consumer. The very first Annual Report of the NCC explicitly stated that consumerism extended beyond goods and services and related to the whole field of government activity.36 The State was urged to exercise its own power, providing capital equipment for poor consumers, ending flat-rate tariffs within the nationalised industries and freeing up resources for housing provision when overcautious building societies were unwilling to lend to certain classes of consumer.37 And consumers were to have as much say in the running of the country as employers and trade unionists. This principle was embodied in the appointment of Young as first chair of the NCC since he was also a member of the National Economic Development Council; the government expected him to act as a powerful consumer advocate in the meetings of this latter body.38

reflections and new directions in consumerism

16In the 1980s, the scope of the NCC’s activities was restricted and consumerism took another direction in the midst of Thatcherite economic reforms and the privatisation of public utilities. Here, again, free choice, individual decision-making, and a notion of the rational utility-maximiser were promoted as the central tenets of the consumer interest. But up until the 1980s, it is clear that consumerism in the British national context developed along lines substantially different from that provided by the US Consumers’ Union. The Consumers’ Association’s Which? magazine thus found itself just one of an increasing range of consumer protection services. And these varying initiatives in turn affected the policy development of the IOCU, which was being increasingly shaped by the differing national contexts of consumer politics. For instance, Young’s own social democratic ideals proved influential in the negotiation of consumerist agendas between Britain, the US and the IOCU. In a speech at the Third Biennial Congress in 1964, he highlighted three dilemmas that the new consumer movement faced:

  1. The needs of the poor versus the needs of the rich

  2. The claims of commercial products versus public services

  3. The standard of living versus the quality of life

  • 39 IOCU, Consumers on the March: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Conference, 22-24 June 1964, London (...)

17His answer was to urge for a broader consumer movement, one that showed that consumers, as Henry Epstein of the Australian Consumers’ Association had put it in an earlier speech, “don’t intend to march around in a circle to a tune played with one finger on a cash register”.39 Of the first dilemma, Young argued that consumerism must acknowledge that many consumers in the developing world had no choice at all and he advocated that western consumers donate 1 per cent of their annual incomes to development projects directed by the IOCU. Of the second dilemma, he argued that consumerism should now turn its attention to public services, consumers using their collective voice to get not just more efficient public services, but more of them in total. Of the third dilemma, Young recognised some of the limitations of comparative testing consumerism:

  • 40 Ibid., p. 136

Are we in the consumers’ organisations no more than servants of the washing machine? A sort of human appendage to the machine age? Is our ideal, our picture of Utopia, a housewife in a great suburban house fitted from one end to the other with humming machinery, rushing frantically from one gadget to another, re-arranging the piles of treasured consumer reports from one table to another? Is there nothing to the good life, except more and more refrigerators and TV sets? Are we as consumers in fundamental agreement with industrialists that all that is necessary to the good life is to produce more, better and cheaper goods?40

  • 41 Ibid.

18Instead consumerism needed to move beyond asking about individual products and teach consumers how to use their time wisely, how to make things for themselves, how to use leisure for individual fulfillment, “not just what to buy, but how to make delight in all the costless pleasures of life: the open air, the trees, the sky. And perhaps the time will come when people will choose not to buy: choose themselves, as their own individual use of freedom, to limit their acquisition of property in the interest of a fuller life, which may for some people also be a simpler life.”41

  • 42 Sim 1991: 43.

19In this, in Young’s essentially Promethean analysis of the consumer movement he had played such a large role in creating, he was to touch on themes that would substantially redirect the activities of the IOCU. In 1970 he would again refer to the social costs of consumption, questioning the position of the poor who often paid the costs of economic development without receiving any of its benefits and arguing IOCU member organisations should include the costs of environmental pollution in their assessments of consumer goods. Other nations’ consumer activists have produced similar agendas. In 1982, Anwar Fazal, the IOCU’s first President from the developing world claimed that “The consumer movement is not just about the value for money. It’s also about the value of people”.42 Frequently, then, the IOCU was becoming the arena for the promotion of more radical consumerist agendas, touching on issues that the members of several States’ consumer testing organisations would have been horrified to discover they had been indirectly financing. Over the decades, the IOCU has focussed on issues such as famine and international food supply, the conservation of energy and the energy crisis, consumer education, low-income consumers, human rights, a consumer ‘interpol’ for hazardous products, deregulation, protectionism and international trade, and the environment.

conclusion

20Many of these concerns have arisen from IOCU’s expansion beyond Europe and the United States. But even within the affluent West there are clear instances of both the independent development of consumerism and the successful integration of national interests within the original US-dominated global institution. It is no surprise, given our existing understandings of Americanisation and cultural and political value transference, that we should observe, in this case study of Britain, aspects of negotiation, contestation and adaptation of a dominant model to local conditions. But the discussion must be still more complicated than this, for American consumerism has hardly remained static itself. It is clear that Consumers’ Union was just one form of consumerism that happened to win out by the end of the 1930s – it might well have been the more radical anti-corporate critique of Consumers’ Research or the more closely aligned state-sponsored model of consumer-citizenship seen in the New Deal era. In the post-war period, too, organised consumerism has moved beyond straight-forward comparative testing, as Ralph Nader’s aggressive anti-business tactics have increasingly entered the mainstream in a legal and political framework that increasingly encourages the institutionalised confrontation of demarcated business and consumer interests.

  • 43 G. Trumbull, “Strategies of consumer group mobilisation: France and Germany in the 1970s”, in Daunt (...)

21Comparative testing and the subsequent focus on consumer rights by the IOCU has undoubtedly become a dominant model and continues to influence consumerism to this day. But this is always shaped by a national context. In Britain, social democratic ideals associated with Michael Young and the Tony Crosland-wing of British socialism, together with the realisation among consumer activists that consumers’ problems cannot be rectified by individual empowerment alone, have shaped the development of consumerism, first in such initiatives as the local advice centres sponsored by the Consumers’ Association and local authorities, and later in the founding principles and activities of the National Consumer Council. Similar divergences from the US model will be witnessed in other national contexts. Gunnar Trumbull has recently argued that in France, grass-roots consumer politics have had much stronger linkages with the trade union movement, whereas in corporatist Germany there is less consumer radicalism but much greater consumer representation within the regional and federal governments. However, the existence of EEC protection rules since the 1970s has seen the issues taken beyond the level of the nation state43.

22Where the Americanisation thesis appears to hold most weight is in the growth of IOCU member organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. But even here, the story is complicated as the enrolment of developing world consumer interests has led to an expansion of official IOCU consumer rights. In the 1990s, the four consumer rights of Kennedy’s 1962 speech had been doubled to eight. They now included:

5. The right of redress

6. The right to consumer education

7. The right to a healthy environment.

8. The right to basic needs

23Rights 5 and 6 might be regarded as mere extensions of the consumer concerns of the US and affluent West, while number 7, the right to a healthy environment, is a clear indication of the increasingly global perspective of organised consumerism. The right to basic needs, however, suggests a fundamental alteration in the IOCU agenda. Given that the vast majority of the population in Europe and America do have access to the most basic needs, and particularly those who have joined consumer organisations, this right appears more as a duty – the responsibility of affluent consumers to alleviate the conditions of their own countries and the developing world’s underclass. This is very different from the original comparative testing and individual rights to choice and freedom model seen in a dominant strand American consumerism in the 1950s. It is a consumerism that owes less to Consumers Reports and far more to Morrisian and Ruskinian traditions of consumer duties in Britain, the philanthropic work of Consumers’ Leagues at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and the fights for a ‘living wage’ in US trade union politics. It is a consumerism based on the politics of poverty rather than the politics of affluence, and is thus far removed from the agendas formulated by the largely middle-class consumers’ movement of the mid-Twentieth Century. The IOCU, it seems, has successfully integrated US-based comparative testing consumerist individualism with more collective responses to global issues of consumer detriment.

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Notes

1 S. Chase & F. J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer’s Dollar, New York, Macmillan, 1927.

2 C. McGovern, “Consumption and citizenship in the United States, 1900-1940”, in S. Strasser, C. McGovern and M. Judt (eds.), Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 51.

3 L. Cohen, “Citizens and consumers in the United States in the century of mass consumption”, in M. Daunton and M. Hilton (eds.), The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America, Oxford, Berg, 2001, p.203-221.

4 L. Cohen, “The New Deal State and the making of citzen consumers”, in Strasser, McGovern and Judt 1998: 116.

5 G. Cross, An All-Consuming Century, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 135.

6 F. G. Sim, IOCU on Record: A Documentary History of the International Organisation of Consumers Unions, 1960-1990, New York, Consumers Union, 1991, p. 27.

7 IOCU, Knowledge is Power: Consumer Goals in the 1970s. Proceedings of the 6th Biennial World Conference of the International Organisation of Consumers Unions, 28 June – 3 July 1970, London, IOCU, p. 115-117.

8 IOCU, Consumer Power in the Nineties: Proceedings of the Thirteenth IOCU World Congress, London, IOCU, 1991, p. 113.

9 - Consumers International, Annual Report, 1999, London, Consumers’ International, p. 37-41.

10 First Annual Report, 1957-1958, p. 2, Third Annual Report, 1960-1961, p. 5, box 30, Consumers Association Archive, London (hereafter CAA); Consumers’ Association, Thirty Years of Which?’1957-1987, London, Consumers’ Association, 1987.

11 New Outlook: A Liberal Magazine, 21 July 1963, p. 19-21; G. Smith, The Consumer Interest, London, John Martin, 1982, p. 291; H. Curtis and M. Sanderson, A Review of the National Federation of Consumer Groups, London, Consumers’ Association, 1992.

12 Box 27, CAA; E. Roberts, “Consumer protection in foodstuffs”, speech delivered in the Food and Nutrition Section at the Health Congress, 1 May 1959, box 27, CAA.

13 The remaining 4 per cent were categorised as ‘other’. See Who reads Which?’, article for New Society, final copy, 26 October 1962, box 27, CAA. See also box A31, CAA.

14 Consumer Intelligence Unit (CIU), “Profile of Subscribers”, October 2000, internal CA document.

15 G. Borrie, The Development of Consumer Law and Policy, London, Stevens & Sons, 1984; Smith 1982.

16 Committee on Consumer Protection, Final Report, cmnd. 1781, London, HMSO, 1962, p. 269.

17 Ibid., p. 1.

18 Committee on Consumer Protection, Interim Report, cmnd. 1011, London, HMSO, 1960, p. 5.

19 Consumer Council, Minutes, 1963-1970, AJ 1 1-10, Public Record Office (hereafter PRO); Consumer Council: Papers: CC (63) 1: Terms of Reference, AJ 2 1, PRO.

20 Focus, 1 (1), 1966, p. 13-16; Focus, 1 (4), 1966, p. 10-11; Focus, 1 (10), 1966, p. 2 (For a list of all the specific issues discussed in the first year, see the index attached to this edition).

21 Focus, 1 (1), 1966, p. 9-12; Focus, 1 (2), 1966, p. 14; Focus, 1 (4), 1966, p. 18.

22 Focus, 1 (1), 1966, p. 6.

23 Focus, 5 (9), 1970, p. 6-7; Focus, 5 (2), 1970, p. 9-12.

24 Focus, 2 (2), 1968, p. 2-5: Focus, 4 (10), 1969, p. 1; Focus, 5 (4), 1970, p. 19-22; Focus, 5 (8), 1970, p. 2-5.

25 The Development of Consumer Advice Centres in the UK, 1978, p. 6, box 27, CAA.

26 Ibid., p. 4; The Need for Consumer Advice Centres, 1975, box 27, CAA; Smith 1982: 14.

27 Director-General of Fair Trading, Annual Report, November 1973-December 1974, London, HMSO, 1975; J. Aspinall, “Glossary of organisations active in consumer affairs” and J. Humble, “A new initiative”, both in J. Mitchell (ed.), Marketing and the Consumer Movement, London, McGraw-Hill, 1978, p. 243-264; I. D. C. Ramsay, Rationales for Intervention in the Marketplace, London, OFT, 1984.

28 J. Mitchell, “Management and the consumer movement”, Journal of General Management, 3 (4), 1976, p. 51.

29 This is perhaps best exemplified by the Conservative’s first appointment to the position of Director-General of Fair Trading. John Methven had been a solicitor for Imperial Chemical Industries and subsequently became the Director of the Confederation of British Industries; Dictionary of National Biography, 1971-1980, p. 567.

30 Quoted in M. H. Winchup, Consumer Legislation in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland: A Study Prepared for the EC Commission, London, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980, p. 7

31 R. Wraith, The Consumer Cause: A Short Account of its Organisation, Power and Importance, London, Royal Institute of Public Administration, 1976, p. 16.

32 Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, National Consumers’ Agency, cmnd. 5726, London, HMSO, 1974.

33 NCC, The Fourth Right of Citizenship: A Review of Local Advice Centres, London, NCC, 1977.

34 Ibid., p. 6; M. Young, “Foreword”, in M. Minogue (ed.), A Consumers Guide to Local Government, London, Macmillan, 1977.

35 F. Williams, “Introduction”, in F. Williams (ed.), Why the Poor Pay More, London, Macmillan, 1977, p.2.

36 NCC, Annual Report, 1975-1976, London, NCC, 1976, p. 9.

37 Williams 1977: 237.

38 R. Hattersley, “Foreword”, in NCC, Annual Report, 1976-1977, London, NCC, 1977.

39 IOCU, Consumers on the March: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Conference, 22-24 June 1964, London, IOCU, p. 130.

40 Ibid., p. 136

41 Ibid.

42 Sim 1991: 43.

43 G. Trumbull, “Strategies of consumer group mobilisation: France and Germany in the 1970s”, in Daunton and Hilton 2001: 261-282.

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