Prosperity for All

Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization

Matthew Hilton
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Prosperity for All
    Book Description:

    The history of consumerism is about much more than just shopping. Ever since the eighteenth century, citizen-consumers have protested against the abuses of the market by boycotting products and promoting fair instead of free trade. In recent decades, consumer activism has responded to the challenges of affluence by helping to guide consumers through an increasingly complex and alien marketplace. In doing so, it has challenged the very meaning of consumer society and tackled some of the key economic, social, and political issues associated with the era of globalization.

    In Prosperity for All, the first international history of consumer activism, Matthew Hilton shows that modern consumer advocacy reached the peak of its influence in the decades after World War II. Growing out of the product-testing activities of Consumer Reports and its international counterparts (including Which? in the United Kingdom, Que Choisir in France, and Test in Germany), consumerism evolved into a truly global social movement. Consumer unions, NGOs, and individual activists like Ralph Nader emerged in countries around the world-including developing countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America-concerned with creating a more equitable marketplace and articulating a politics of consumption that addressed the needs of both individuals and society as a whole.

    Consumer activists achieved many victories, from making cars safer to highlighting the dangers of using baby formula instead of breast milk in countries with no access to clean water. The 1980s saw a reversal in the consumer movement's fortunes, thanks in large part to the rise of an antiregulatory agenda both in the United States and internationally. In the process, the definition of consumerism changed, focusing more on choice than on access. As Hilton shows, this change reflects more broadly on the dilemmas we all face as consumers: 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?

    Prosperity for All makes clear that by abandoning a more idealistic vision for consumer society we reduce consumers to little more than shoppers, and we deny the vast majority of the world's population the fruits of affluence.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6163-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Wealth of Access
    (pp. 1-20)

    There is much more to the history of consumer society than just shopping. Ever since the eighteenth century consumers have protested against the abuses of the market. They have boycotted products, offered alternative moral economies, sought to politicize the act of consumption, and promoted different notions of fair and honest trade. In certain instances they have been driven by the hunger in their stomachs. On occasion, they have been motivated by politics, especially when goods have come to hold symbolic meanings for wider ideological struggles. And at times, their focus has not been on the plight of consumers, but on...

  5. 1 The Fear of Fortune: The Uneasy Consumer in an Age of Affluence
    (pp. 21-50)

    In 1956, Colston E. Warne, a professor of economics at Amherst College, Massachusetts, sought to spread the gospel of consumerism throughout the Western, capitalist world. Warne had been president of the U.S. comparative testing organization, Consumers Union since its establishment in 1936. After completing his dissertation on the U.S. co-operative movement at the University of Chicago, he had gone on to campaign for workers’ rights and civil liberties and became associated with the “people’s lobby” of the socialist Benjamin Marsh. At Consumers Union, he had overseen its struggles with difficult financial issues and internal personality clashes, he had helped it...

  6. 2 Cold War Shoppers: Consumerism As State Project
    (pp. 51-74)

    It is all too easy to dismiss the subscribers to the comparative testing magazines as the petty-minded penny-pinchers of commodity capitalism. It cannot be denied that a high proportion of Which?, Que Choisir, Test, and Consumer Reports readers have only been interested in their own material advantage. Value for money, for them, has related only to their own pockets and not to those of their fellow citizens. Yet, even acknowledging that many were only out for personal gain, they nevertheless showed themselves to be sympathetic to the campaigns of the leaders of consumer activism that have sought to reform the...

  7. 3 Poverty amid Prosperity: Consumer Protest beyond the Affluent West
    (pp. 75-97)

    Consumer activism is a global phenomenon. The principal organization representing consumers at the global level is Consumers International (formerly the International Organisation of Consumers Unions, or IOCU). It has over 220 members from 115 different countries and, in 2007, elected its first African President, Samuel Ochieng of the Kenyan consumer movement. Its reach stretches from the richer societies of Europe and North America to developing states across Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as the former Soviet bloc. Inevitably, as organized consumerism has spread throughout the world it has come across consumers with very different interests and concerns than...

  8. 4 Consumers of the World Unite: Consumption and the New Global Order
    (pp. 98-125)

    Since 1945, the United Nations has been the focal point for what has tentatively come to be referred to as global civil society. Consumers have not usually been thought of as part of this activist landscape. Instead, trade unions, women’s groups, development organizations, faith-based charities, business associations, and advocacy networks have all been seen to have worked with and through UN bodies such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Office (FAO), and the General Assembly itself. For several decades the umbrella term used...

  9. 5 The All-Consuming Network: The Politics of Protest in an Age of Consumption
    (pp. 126-152)

    According to statistics compiled by the World Health Organization, over 4,000 babies die every day because they are not breast-fed. This amounts to approximately 1.5 million every year or one infant mortality every thirty seconds. The nature of the problem, as argued by a number of campaigning organizations such as Baby Milk Action, La Leche League, and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, is now reasonably familiar. Multinational corporations have promoted infant formulas and alternatives to mother’s milk, which are either less nutritious or downright dangerous. Particularly in areas where water is unsafe, it is claimed that babies are up...

  10. 6 Backlash: The Corporate Critique of Consumerism
    (pp. 153-184)

    One of the more peculiar characters associated with consumer activism in the twentieth century was that of Dr. J. B. Matthews. Originally a Methodist missionary and self-proclaimed “religious fundamentalist,” an ongoing intellectual journey of self-discovery led him first to pacifism and then to the socialism associated in the United States with Norman Thomas—six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America. A further radicalization of his views took Matthews to the Communist Party in 1932 and he became a fervent advocate of Marxism. At the same time, he also maintained a prominent position at Consumers’ Research, where he became...

  11. 7 Choose Life: Consumer Rights versus Human Rights
    (pp. 185-213)

    The publicity poster in figure 11 lists the eight consumer rights, which together constitute the operating principles of the global consumer movement. They are based on a speech made by President John F. Kennedy to the U.S. Congress on 15 March 1962 when he pledged his support to some of the key demands of consumer activists: “If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.”...

  12. 8 Shopping for Justice: The Freedom of Free Trade
    (pp. 214-240)

    In the early 1970s, the role and activities of transnational—or multinational—corporations came to be seriously scrutinized by the international community. In 1972, President Salvador Allende of Chile complained to the UN General Assembly that two U.S.-based businesses, the Kennecott Copper Corporation and the International Telegraph and Telephone Company, had unduly intervened in Chilean political life and had even conspired to overthrow his government. Over thirty years later, we are more aware of the extent of the U.S. government’s direct involvement in Chilean politics. The CIA worked to block Allende’s election in 1970 and was associated with the powers...

  13. Conclusion: The Poverty of Choice
    (pp. 241-254)

    Hand in hand with the rise of consumer society has been an attendant critique of it. It is of no surprise to learn that some of the foremost critics of consumer society have emerged from the country that has promoted the pleasures of consumption more than any other—the United States. Notwithstanding the anti-Americanism of European cultural elites or the new advocates of Asian and alternative value frameworks, some of the most prominent denouncers of commodity capitalism have emerged from the United States itself. There exists a rich tradition of liberal browbeating from the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith to...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 255-306)
  15. Index
    (pp. 307-316)