Matthew Hilton


On his book Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization

Cover Interview of October 18, 2009

A close-up

Two chapters might provide some real surprises to readers.

Chapter five deals with activist networks.  Today, networks are a common feature of the political landscape.  Non-governmental organisations, labour unions, social movements, women groups, and faith-based organisations often come together to focus on one particular issue and campaign collectively.  A particularly successful one in recent years was Jubilee 2000, to stop third world debt.  The varied organisations within a network might have a whole host of political differences (think of the radical and alternative yet also reformist and even conservative advocates of climate change).  Yet they are willing to cast these aside in order to focus on the issue they have in common.

What is not so well known is that the organised consumer activist movement played a crucial role in pioneering networks at the global level.  In 1979 the global consumer movement launched the International Baby Food Action Network to campaign against the sale of breast milk substitutes.  In 1981, Health Action International was created to campaign against the inappropriate marketing of dangerous or useless pharmaceuticals.  And in 1982, Pesticide Action Network was formed to tackle the issue of extensive pesticide use and to seek alternative forms of agricultural production.

In all of these cases the consumer movement was joined by what have become more well known activist groups (e.g., Oxfam).  Yet it was the consumer movement that initially inspired the networks, provided the secretariats to keep them going and the freedom to go on to become prominent players in global civil society.  In doing so they provided the forms of global co-operation among NGOs that would later manifest itself at the World Social Forum.

Chapter six also explores unfamiliar but intriguing territory—the opposition faced by the consumer movement.  Purchasers of Consumer Reports hardly come across as a revolutionary vanguard seeking to destroy the fundamental structures of our economy and society.  Yet the opponents of consumer groups would have us believe otherwise.  The original Consumers Union, founded in 1936, long provoked the ire of business groups who disliked their products being criticised.  Consumers Union leaders had repeatedly to fend off charge of communism during the McCarthy era.  But the wrath of big business was maintained with every success of the consumer movement.  Ralph Nader was a constant thorn in their side, so much so that they—comically and disastrously—hired private investigators to ensnare him in a ‘honey trap’.

The opposition to government regulations in the consumer interest became much more serious once the global economy faced up to the challenges of the 1970s.  Then, various rightwing think-tanks were either founded or revitalised through huge corporate donations.  Neoconservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute ensured that American citizens would never enjoy the same sort of consumer protection agencies as their European counterparts.  And once Ronald Reagan was elected to power, the anti-consumer, anti-regulatory agenda dominated foreign policy too.  The various attempts to control multinational corporations’ less responsible actions that the consumer movement had inspired were rolled back and a new system of global trade regulation was eventually put in place (i.e., the World Trade Organisation) that gave little room to the concerns of consumer activism.