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Consumer Movement.

The Oxford Companion to United States History

Margaret Finnegan

Consumer Movement. 

The modern consumer movement arose in the Progressive Era, as citizens concerned about unsafe products and environmental hazards used lobbying, voting, and journalistic exposés to press for government protection. In the same vein, the Consumers Union (1936), publisher of Consumer Reports, tests products for safety, economy, and reliability, to give consumers an objective basis for choice.

Some Progressive reformers espoused a different kind of consumer activism, however, mobilizing shoppers' purchasing power to promote social change. Florence Kelley's National Consumers' League (1899), emphasizing the social link between middle-class women shoppers and the workers who produced the goods they bought, mobilized consumer pressure to champion protective legislation for workers, especially women and children. Woman suffragists, likewise, used consumer pressure to demand respect and support from businesses that needed their patronage. Such socially engaged consumerism actually had long historical antecedents, including Revolutionary Era patriots who had boycotted English tea and textiles and abolitionists who had refused to purchase goods made of slave-produced cotton.

Consumer activism revived in the late 1960s, flourished in the 1970s, and, despite a conservative backlash against government regulation, survived in diminished form in the 1990s. A by-product of 1960s social activism, consumer advocates insisted on citizens' rights to safe and reasonably priced goods and services and to the full disclosure of product information. The lawyer Ralph Nader gained fame for Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which detailed safety hazards plaguing General Motors' (GM) Corvair automobile. Using $425,000 won in an invasion-of-privacy suit against GM in 1970, Nader founded numerous consumer groups, nicknamed “Nader's Raiders,” that pursued legal challenges to unsafe products and demanded greater government protection for consumers. The formation of the Consumer Federation of America (1968), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (1972) attested to the movement's success but also to its regulatory and legalistic bent. Focused on consumers' rights, the modern movement downplayed the power of consumers to effect social change.

But while the idea of mobilizing purchasing power to achieve larger social goals was not a hallmark of the post-1960 consumer movement, it did survive. Many Americans boycotted grapes in the 1970s to support migratory agricultural workers' unionization campaign. In the 1980s and 1990s, religious groups organized boycotts of corporations that produced movies, TV shows and records they considered offensive; labor unions called for boycotts of nonunion companies; and activists urged consumers to reject products made in unsafe Third World factories paying starvation wages or employing child labor.

See also Consumer Culture.


David Bollier, Citizen Action and Other Big Ideas: A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement, 1989.Find this resource:

    Margaret Finnegan, Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women, 1998.Find this resource:

      Margaret Finnegan