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CONSUMER MOVEMENTS

Consumer power is the ability of people to influence their own economic well-being. At times individuals, working alone, have advanced consumer power by swaying public opinion and instigating consumer legislation. More commonly, consumer power is advanced through the collective actions of consumer groups.

Consumerism

Consumerism refers to the protection of consumer interests. There are many subsets to this definition. For instance, consumerism is directly concerned with protecting consumers' freedom of choice. That is, consumers have the right to buy products that are safe and that meet promised quality standards. Consumerism is also related to limiting firms' freedom of enterprise by regulating or prohibiting certain unethical, deceptive, or otherwise harmful business practices. In its broadest context, consumerism delves into matters of social justice, including issues related to the redistribution of society's wealth, sustainable consumption, environmental protection, and other quality of life concerns.

People who actively support the goals of consumerism are called consumerists. Consumerists work on behalf of consumer interests individually and as members of organizations or agencies in the private or public sectors. For more than a century, private sector consumerists have formed a loosely coordinated consumer movement in the United States. More recently, consumerism has gained momentum in the global community.

The consumer movement is the embodiment of the actions, programs, and other forms of activism by individual consumerists and private consumerist organizations. The movement welcomes the support of public officials, government agencies, and businesses on behalf of consumers but does not recognize the government or businesses as participants in the consumer movement.

State and Local Consumer Movement

The consumer movement at the state and local levels dates back to the late nineteenth century. State “consumer leagues,” which were founded as early as the 1890s, advocated for the poor. These leagues targeted employers who subjected workers, including women and children, to sweatshop conditions in factories and mills. Early consumer leagues also strengthened the consumer's voice to ensure product safety, including the safety of the food supply. To expand the scope and the influence of the consumer's voice, state consumer leagues established the nation's first national consumer organization, the National Consumers League (NCL), in 1899.

During the twentieth century state and local consumer groups provided grassroots support for consumer-oriented legislation. In doing so, they complemented the work of national consumer organizations such as Consumers' Research, the Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America. During the 1960s state and local consumer groups blossomed. Since the 1960s many state and local consumer groups have been established to address consumer issues in areas related to public utilities, housing, health care, energy, and personal finance.

Today state and local consumer groups generally share a number of characteristics. First, state and local consumer groups often focus on specific local issues such as inadequate local health care or housing. Larger issues, such as climate change and global poverty, are generally left to national consumer organizations. Second, state and local consumer groups normally conduct their operations independently. They establish their own goals, raise funds, and instigate reforms using local talent—often consisting of volunteers. Third, state and local consumer groups work within existing political institutions. Hence, their voices are heard at town council meetings, state legislatures, and other public forums.

Most consumer complaints at the state level center on everyday consumer problems. In its 2010 Consumer Complaint Survey Report, the Consumer Federation of America identified the top areas of consumer dissatisfaction. Topping the consumer complaint list in 2010 were disputes related to auto sales and maintenance, credit and lending practices, home improvement and construction, retail sales, and the billing and services of utility companies.[1]

  • [1] Consumer Federation of America (CFA) et al., “Top Ten Complaints in 2010,” 2010 Consumer Complaint Survey Report, July 27, 2011, 5.
 
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