History and Safety of Consumers

Consumerism is not new. Even in the Middle Ages, religious leaders such as Martin, Luther and John Calvin attacked deceptive selling practices of business and advanced the concept of a just price rather than what the market would bear. In the United States three eras of consumerism have been identified. A description of these eras provides a historical perspective which aids in understanding the current movement and provides a background for analysis of future events.

The Early years:

The turn of the twentieth century brought about the first undercurrents of consumer unrest. The Jungle by Up to Sinclair was a 1906 expose on the filth surrounding the Chicago meat packing industry. This book created such a public outcry that Congress was compelled to pass the Meat inspection act of 1906. This act provided federal inspection of meat packing and processing. That’s same year the Food and Drug Administration was created as an agency charged with preventing misbranded and adulterated food and drugs in interstate commerce. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was established in 1914 to curb the growth of the use of monopolies and trade practices that might hinder competition. However, consumer protection was still not given prominence by business or government during this time.

The formative years:

The US economy was undergoing substantial changes in the post World War I years. The return of American troops from Europe brought about an awakening in our country of the goods and services available in other countries and a consumer anxious to buy new products. US businesses responded with new products and new and bigger advertising campaign. Books again stirred a consciousness of consumers plight. Your Money’s Worth attacked the manipulation and deceit of advertising and called for product standards and testing to give consumers information for making buying decisions. One result of this book was the establishment of the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. The books 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs pointed out loopholes in the Food and Drugs act which permitted the sale of dangerous medicines, unsafe cosmetics and adulterated foods. This led to the passage of the food rug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and the Wheeler Lea Act of 1938 The Wheeler Lea amendment to the Federal Trade Commission Act increased the policing powers of the Federal Trade Commissions. The FTC could now prosecute unlawful, deceptive or unfair practices, thus providing some protection to consumers.

The recent era:

While a book by Vance Packard entitled The Hidden Persuaders published in the late 1950s, again charged that consumers were being manipulated by advertising. The real impetus for the career consumerism movement came from President John F Kennedy’s speech to Congress in which he identified what has been referred to as the consumer’s bill of rights. In 1962, Kennedy presented in a message to Congress the following four fundamental rights:

1) The right to safety to be protected against the marketing of goods, which are hazardous to health or life.
2) The right to informed
To be protected against fraudulent deceitful or grossly misleading information advertising, labeling or other practices, and to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice.
3) The right to choose: to be assured wherever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices and in those industries in which competition is not workable and government regulation is substituted with an assurance of satisfactory quality and service at fair prices.
4) The right to be heard: to be assured that consumers’ interest will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of government policy, and fair and expeditious treatment in its administrative tribunals.

Let’s examine each of these and two additional emerging rights and see how they are related to current issues for consumers. These rights are the foundations for the current interest in consumerism in the United States.
Source: Consumer Behavior