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.
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