The consumer movement turns 50

15 Mar 12 07:00AM EST
Post by Nick Stace
Margaret Thatcher reflected – ‘if you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman’. The consumer movement has certainly been a movement defined by strong women - from the founder of CHOICE ‘Red’ Ruby Hutchison, to firebrand Sheila McKechnie, who helped make Which?, the UK equivalent, a major force for change.

But a man who was very good at talking was John F Kennedy. In his address to US Congress 50 years ago today, he outlined what became known as the consumer bill of rights with a striking rationale for why consumers matter. He said:

"Consumers, by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group in the economy ... two thirds of all spending in the economy is done by consumers. Their voice is not always as loudly heard in Washington as the voices of smaller and better organised groups."

Over the past five decades we have moved from the birth of consumerism in the 1960s; to landmark consumer legislation in the 1970s; to consumers at the table of influence in government circles in the 1980s. The 1990s saw consumer groups beginning to work with industries to build ombudsman schemes and other complaints mechanisms. The 2000s saw the need for one consumer law and, thanks to the internet, global consumerism was brought to almost every home. This decade is seeing unprecedented consumer activism.

A lot has been achieved around basic consumer rights, safety standards and importantly pricking the consciousness of consumers, government and industry. But this is only the start and there is a lot more to do.

The current wave of consumer activism in Australia and around the world is probably the most fascinating phase and the one that has the potential to really put power into the hands of the people.

Take Adam Brimo’s Vodafail website set up in response to his deep frustrations with Vodafone. He attracted 300,000 people to take action. Or the CHOICE Big Bank Switch that saw a record 40,000 people wanting a better deal from their bank. And later today CHOICE will unveil the next phase of our Move Your Money Campaign, all focused around consumer action.

Our deep frustrations, once buried as deeply because of our inability to affect change, can now be activated and achieve impact while we wait for a bus or as I did last night, while feeding my 7 week old baby!

It’s not just about anger, it’s also about reward and recognition for those who lead the way. On a recent trip to San Francisco I met Brent Schulkin the founder of Carrot Mob, the campaigning group that seeks to show the power of ‘buycotts’. While others may still prefer boycotts, members of Carrot Mob actively buy from companies that are being responsible. Brent’s team measure the financial benefits that will flow to those companies doing the right thing.

And at a time when capitalism seems to be defined almost every hour by commentators, consumers are redefining access over ownership with a revolution in sharing sites - from garden tools to cars, houses and even chickens. This new form of mutualism has radical implications for how conventional businesses respond as it puts more power into the hands of consumers.

So, all seems good, except it’s not quite as simple as that.

We’re winning the war on safety around products, but what about people who make the wrong decisions around their retirement income, with a longer lasting and altogether more bitter taste?

Consumers want to do the right thing for the environment, but who do they believe, and how can they navigate decisions across multiple daily product purchases?

Many of us are content to share more about ourselves, but where are the safeguards to this? It took the French Government to challenge Google’s privacy policy and the onus is on us all to be more vigilant now than ever before.

What about markets that have systemic problems like retirement villages, real estate agencies, legal services, even dare I say supermarkets, where consumers are still relatively powerless? Do we have the right competition laws in place? And how do we have adequate safeguards in place, with Parliament moving at a 19th century pace and the digital environment changing every minute?

The last 50 years have been productive and worthwhile and as a consumer movement we should feel some sense of pride for what has been achieved, but there is no greater certainty about the future because of what we have achieved and there is certainly no room for complacency.

CHOICE exists to unlock the power of consumers and as a social business that prides itself on its ability to speak without fear or favour, it is dependent on consumer’s becoming members, to support its work. The only bias we have, is that the consumer interest is the most important, it’s about all of us and our voices deserve to be heard.

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