Thursday, 9 April 2009

The global consumer movement... past, present and future

Tom McGrath, Campaigns Assistant, writes about a recent CI lunchtime presentation:

'Matthew Hilton, Professor of Social History at the University of Birmingham in the UK, recently gave a fascinating presentation to staff at Consumers International London Office.

Matthew is the author of Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalisation. This book charts the history of international consumer activism from its origins in 18th century England to the emergence of product testing organisations such as Consumers Union in the USA and Que Choisir in France after World War II, and the subsequent rise of a truly global social movement.

By the 1980s many consumer organisations began to suffer considerably in the face of aggressive pressure from an international political environment that was increasingly hostile to regulation. The soul-searching that followed led some groups in the developed world to adopt a fundamentally different approach to consumerism that concentrated far more on choice as opposed to access.

Matthew argues that this change in focus has not only polarised the global movement to a certain degree, but in a broader sense reflects the challenges and dilemmas facing all consumers. As the blurb on his book puts it; ‘Do we want more stuff and more prosperity for ourselves, or do we want others less fortunate to be able to enjoy the same opportunities and standard of living that we do?’

Since it’s inception in 1960 (then the International Organisation of Consumer Unions), the history of Consumers International has of course been intertwined with the journey of the movement as a whole. For those of us still relatively new to consumer issues, Matthew’s presentation proved incredibly insightful.

It was useful to be reminded of the many successes that CI member organisations have achieved throughout the 20th century, as well as the great campaigns that CI has run in the past on issues such as the irresponsible promotion of baby formula in the developing world, as well as the various campaigning networks that CI was instrumental in forming, including Health Action International and the Pesticide Action Network.

I would personally highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding where the international consumer movement has come from, where it is today and the opportunities and challenges it will face going forward. For a condensed version of Matthew’s position on ‘choice versus access’ also read his article on ‘The death of consumer society’. '

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