Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Matthew Hilton


This paper argues that the meaning of consumer society has changed over the last half century, principally through the prioritisation of choice over access. It does this through an examination of the global consumer movement and a consideration of its successes and failures. It demonstrates that through the movement's own tactics, and the defeats it suffered by opponents of regulation, its earlier emphasis on the right of consumers to enjoy basic needs has given way to a greater focus on choice. Consequently, the changing fortunes of consumer activism around the world both reflect and explain the reorientation of global consumer society over the last few decades.



Hide All

1 Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialisation of Eighteenth-Century England (1982), 1.

2 Principally, Thirsk, Joan, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1978).

3 See, for instance, Welch, Evelyn, Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400–1600 (New Haven, CT, 2005); Clunas, Craig, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Cambridge, 1991).

4 McKendrick et al., Birth of a Consumer Society, 1.

5 Thompson, N., ‘Social Opulence, Private Asceticism: Ideas of Consumption in Early Socialist Thought’, in The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America, ed. Daunton, M. and Hilton, M. (Oxford, 2001), 5168.

6 C. Gide, Principles of Political Economy (1903), 680; Bonner, A., British Co-operation: The History, Principles and Organisation of the British Co-operative Movement (Manchester, 1961).

7 Donohue, Kathleen G., Freedom from Want: American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer (Baltimore, 2003); Ackerman, Frank, ‘Foundations of Economic Theories of Consumption: Overview Essay’, in The Consumer Society, ed. Goodwin, Neva R., Ackerman, Frank and Kiron, David (Washington, DC, 1997), 149–58.

8 Glickman, Lawrence B., A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Glickman, Lawrence, ‘Workers of the World, Consume: Ira Steward and the Origins of Labour Consumerism’, International Labour and Working Class History, 52 (1997), 7286; Vincent, Julien, ‘The Moral Expertise of the British Consumer, c. 1900: A Debate between the Christian Social Union and the Webbs’, in The Expert Consumer: Associations and Professionals in Consumer Society, ed. Chatriot, Alain, Chessel, Marie-Emmanuelle and Hilton, Matthew (Aldershot, 2006), 3751; Maud Nathan, The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement (1926), 23–4; Sklar, Kathryn Kish, ‘The Consumer's White Label Campaign of the National Consumer's League, 1898–1918’, in Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, ed. Strasser, Susan, McGovern, Charles and Judt, Matthias (Cambridge, 1998), 1735; Breckman, Warren, ‘Disciplining Consumption: The Debate on Luxury in Wilhelmine Germany, 1890–1914’, Journal of Social History, 24 (1991), 485505; Sklar, Kathryn Kish, Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830–1900 (New Haven, CT, 1995); Chessel, Marie-Emmanuelle, ‘Consommation et réforme sociale à la Belle Époque: la conference internationale des ligues socials d'acheteurs en 1908’, Sciences de la Societé, 62 (2004), 4567.

9 Cohen, Lizabeth, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York, 2003).

10 Trumbull, Gunnar, Consumer Capitalism: Politics, Product Markets and Firm Strategy in France and Germany (Ithaca, NY, 2006); Iselin Theien, ‘Shopping for the “People's Home”: Consumer Planning in Norway and Sweden after the Second World War’, and Katherine Pence, ‘Shopping for an “Economic Miracle”: Gendered Politics of Consumer Citizenship in Divided Germany’, in Chatriot et al., Expert Consumer, 105–20, 137–50; Black, Lawrence, The Political Culture of the Left in Britain, 1951–1964 (Basingstoke, 2003).

11 de Grazia, Victoria, Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA, 2005); Kroen, Sheryl, ‘La magie des objets, le Plan Marshall et l'instauration d'une démocratie de consommateurs’, in Au nom du consommateur: consommation et politique en Europe et aux États-Unis au xxe siècle, ed., Chatriot, Alain, Chessel, Marie-Emmanuelle and Hilton, Matthew (Paris, 2005), 8097; Kroen, Sheryl, ‘Negotiations with the American Way: The Consumer and the Social Contract in Post-War Europe’, in Consuming Cultures, Global Perspective: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges, ed. Brewer, John and Trentmann, Frank (Oxford, 2006), 251–77.

12 Cohen, A Consumers' Republic; Jacobs, Meg, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ, 2005); Cross, Gary, An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America (New York, 2000); Donohue, Freedom from Want.

13 Glickman, Lawrence B., ‘The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture’, Journal of American History, 88 (2001), 99128; Mayer, Robert N., The Consumer Movement: Guardians of the Marketplace (Boston, MA, 1989); Silber, Norman Isaac, Test and Protest: The Influence of Consumers Union (New York, 1983); Pertschuk, Michael, Revolt against Regulation: The Rise and Pause of the Consumer Movement (Berkeley, CA, 1982); McGovern, Charles, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890–1945 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006).

14 Encyclopaedia of the Consumer Movement, ed. S. Brobeck, R. N. Mayer and R. O. Herrmann (Santa Barbara, CA, 1997), various entries.

15 Thorelli, Hans B. and Thorelli, Sarah V., Consumer Information Systems and Consumer Policy (Cambridge, MA, 1977), 234.

16 Ibid., 340.

17 Thorelli, Hans B. and Thorelli, Sarah V., Consumer Information Handbook: Europe and North America (New York, 1974), xxiv.

18 Marx, Capital, i, in The Portable Karl Marx, ed. E. Kamenka (Harmondsworth, 1930), 446–50.

19 Trumbull, Consumer Capitalism; Alain Chatriot, ‘Qui defend le consommateur? Associations, institutions et politiques publiques en France, 1972–2003’, in Chatriot et al., Au nom du consommateur, 165–81; Trumbull, Gunnar, ‘National Varieties of Consumerism’, Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 1 (2006), 7793; Maclachlan, Patricia L., Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan: The Institutional Boundaries of Citizen Activism (New York, 2002).

20 Trumbull, Consumer Capitalism, 8–9.

21 Hilton, Matthew, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement (Cambridge, 2003).

22 Mayer, The Consumer Movement, 29, 101; Finch, James E., ‘A History of the Consumer Movement in the United States: Its Literature and Legislation’, Journal of Consumer Studies and Home Economics, 9 (1985), 2333.

23 Landsman, Mark, Dictatorship and Demand: The Politics of Consumerism in East Germany (Cambridge, MA, 2005).

24 Mazurek, Malgorzata and Hilton, Matthew, ‘Consumerism, Solidarity and Communism: Consumer Protection and the Consumer Movement in Poland’, Journal of Contemporary History, 42 (2007), 315–43.

25 Beverley Hooper, ‘The consumer citizen in contemporary China’, Working Paper No. 12, Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University, available at: (accessed Apr. 2007); ‘Complaint Hotline Saves 4.4 Billion Yuan for Consumers during Five Years’, People's Daily, 26 Mar. 2004, available at: (accessed Apr. 2007); Jing Jian Xiao, ‘Chinese consumer movement’, in Brobeck et al., Encyclopaedia of the Consumer Movement, 104–8; King, Donald B. and Gao, Tong, Consumer Protection in China: Development and Recommendations (Littleton, CO, 1991); Gao, Tong, ‘Chinese Consumer Protection Philosophy’, Journal of Consumer Policy, 14 (1992), 337–50.

26 International Organisation of Consumers Unions (IOCU), The Consumer and the World of Tomorrow: Report of the Second Conference of the International Organisation of Consumers Union (The Hague, 1962); Roberts, Eirlys, International Organisation of Consumers Unions, 1960–1981 (The Hague, 1981); Sim, Foo Gaik, IOCU on Record: A Documentary History of the International Organization of Consumers Unions, 1960–1990 (Yonkers, NY, 1991); IOCU, Programme of First International Meeting on Consumer Testing (The Hague, 1960).

27 IOCU, Knowledge Is Power: Consumer Goals in the 1970s. Proceedings of the 6th Biennial World Conference of the International Organisation of Consumers Unions (1970), 115–17.

28 IOCU, Consumer Power in the Nineties: Proceedings of the Thirteenth IOCU World Congress (1991), 113.

29 Consumers International, Annual Report, 1999 (1999), 37–41.

30 Gerth, Karl, China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation (Cambridge, MA, 2003); Robinson, Michael Edson, Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea, 1920–1925 (Seattle, 1988); Nelson, Laura C., Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea (New York, 2000); Bayly, C. A., ‘The Origins of Swadeshi (Home Industry): Cloth and Indian Society, 1700–1930’, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Appadurai, Arjun (Cambridge, 1986).

31 Fernandez, Josie, ‘Consumer Protection in Asia: The Challenges Ahead’, Journal of Development Communication, 12 (2001), 4252; Josie Fernandez, ‘Asian-Pacific Consumer Movement’, in Brobeck et al., Encyclopaedia of the Consumer Movement, 38–42; Wood, John T. D., ‘Consumer Protection in the Asian-Pacific Region’, Journal of Consumer Policy, 14 (1991), 99106.

32 What follows is a summary of my work on Malaysia. Further details can be found in Hilton, Matthew, ‘Social Activism in an Age of Consumption: The Organised Consumer Movement’, Social History, 32 (2007), 121–43, and ‘The Consumer Movement and Civil Society in Malaysia’, International Review of Social History, 52 (2007), 373–406.

33 Jacobson, Harold K., Networks of Interdependence: International Organisations and the Global Political System (New York, 1984).

34 Goldenman, G. and Rengam, S., Problem Pesticides, Pesticide Problems: A Citizens' Action Guide to the International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides (Penang, 1988); Balasubramaniam, K., Health and Pharmaceuticals in Developing Countries: Towards Social Justice and Equity (Penang, 1996); Sim, Foo Gaik, The Pesticide Poisoning Report: A Survey of Some Asian Countries (Penang, 1985); Hansen, Michael, Escape from the Pesticide Treadmill: Alternatives to Pesticides in Developing Countries (Penang, 1987); IOCU and IBFAN, Protecting Infant Health: A Health Workers' Guide to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (Penang, 1985); IBFAN, Breaking the Rules 1991: A Worldwide Report on Violations of the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (Penang, 1991); Charles Medawar, Drugs and World Health: An International Consumer Perspective (1984).

35 IOCU Archive, Kuala Lumpur, Box 61a, File G5a.6, Anwar Fazal, ‘An Outline Strategy for the Promotion and Financing of Consumers’ Organisations in Developing Countries', paper presented to IOCU World Congress, 23–7 Mar. 1975, Sydney, 3.

36 Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY, 1998).

37 IOCU Archive, Box 61a, File G5a.32, Anwar Fazal, ‘Brave and Angry: The International Consumer Movement's Response to MNCs’, paper presented to ASEAN Consumer Protection Seminar, 1–4 Oct. 1980, Quezon City, Philippines, 8.

38 IOCU, Annual Report, 1986, 10; Vernon, Michael J., Evaluation of the Consumer Interpol: A Report to IOCU (Penang: IOCU-ROAP, 1984); IOCU Archive, Box 17, File B3em, Abrahams, Martin, ‘Consumer Interpol: A Citizen's Action Approach to Police Corporate Dumping of Hazardous Products’, Project Appraisal, 3 (1988), 155–8.

39 IOCU, Report for 1975–1978, 32–43; IOCU, Annual Report, 1979, 21–36; IOCU, Report for 1972–1974, 28–30, 40–5; IOCU, Biennial Report, 1970–1972, 27.

40 Harland, David, ‘The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection’, Journal of Consumer Policy, 10 (1987), 245–66; Esther Peterson and Jean M. Halloran, ‘United Nations Consumer Protections’, in Brobeck et al., Encyclopaedia of the Consumer Movement, 581–3.

41 Quoted in Swagler, R., ‘Evolution and Applications of the Term Consumerism: Themes and Variations’, Journal of Consumer Affairs, 28 (1994), 350. For other definitions see the Oxford English Dictionary; Consumerism: Search for the Consumer Interest, ed. D. A. Aaker and G. S. Day, 3rd edn (Basingstoke, 1978), 2; Y. Gabriel and T. Lang, The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentation (1995), 7–9.

42 IOCU Archive, Box 71, File H3.1, John F. Kennedy, ‘Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest’, 15 Mar. 1962.

43 Stephen Weatherill, EC Consumer Law and Policy (1997); Commission of the European Communities, Consumer Protection and Information Policy: Third Report (Luxembourg, 1981); Commission of the European Communities, Consumer Representation in the European Communities (Luxembourg, 1983); Commission of the European Communities, Ten Years of Community Consumer Policy: A Contribution to a People's Europe (Luxembourg, 1986); Economic and Social Consultative Assembly, The Consumer and the Internal Market (Brussels, 1993); Consumers in the Europe Group, EU Consumer Protection Policy: A Review of European Union Consumer Programmes, EU Consumer Protection Legislation and European Commission Consumer Initiatives (1999).

44 Interview with Anwar Fazal, 13 Apr. 2004.

45 Finch, ‘A History of the Consumer Movement’; Kansas State University Archive, Dorothy Willner papers, Box 11, Knauer, Virginia H., President's Committee on Consumer Interests and Office of Consumer Affairs: The Years 1969–1977 (Washington, DC, 1977).

46 Capital Legal Foundation, Abuse of Trust: A Report on Ralph Nader's Network (Chicago, 1982); Grayson, Melvin J. and Shepard, Thomas R, The Disaster Lobby: Prophets of Ecological Doom and Other Absurdities (Chicago, 1973); Peterson, Mary Bennett, The Regulated Consumer (Los Angeles, CA, 1971).

47 Blumenthal, Sidney, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York, 1986); The Essential Neoconservative Reader, ed. Mark Green (Reading, MA, 1996); Steinfels, Peter, The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics (New York, 1979); Smith, James Allen, The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite (New York, 1991); Wilcox, Derk Arend, The Right Guide: A Guide to Conservative and Right-of-Centre Organisations (Ann Arbor, MI, 1997).

48 Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, Esther Peterson Papers, Box 89, Folder 1746: Cohen and Tremaine, Consumer Agency History, 66; Vogel, David, Kindred Strangers: The Uneasy Relationship between Politics and Business in America (Princeton, NJ, 1996); Wilson, Graham, ‘American Business and Politics’, in Interest Group Politics, ed. Cigler, Allan J. and Loomis, Burdett A. (Washington, DC, 1986), 221–35; Ackard, Patrick J., ‘Corporate Mobilisation and Political Power: The Transformation of US Economic Policy in the 1970s’, American Sociological Review, 57 (1992), 597615; Clawson, Dan and Clawson, Mary Ann, ‘Reagan or Business? Foundations of the New Conservatism’, in The Structure of Power in America: The Corporate Elite as a Ruling Class, ed. Schwartz, Michael (New York, 1987), 201–17.

49 Richard Berryman and Richard Schifter, ‘A Global Straitjacket’, Regulation, Sept./Oct. 1981, 19–28; Kenneth L. Adelman, ‘Biting the Hand that Cures Them’, Regulation, July/Aug. 1982, 16–18.

50 Adelman, ‘Biting’, 18; Harry Schwartz, ‘The UN System's War on the Drug Industry’, Regulation, July/Aug. 1982, 19–24.

51 Edwards, Lee, The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years (Ottowa, 1997), 77.

52 Pines, Burton Yale, ‘Introduction’, in A World without a U.N.: What would Happen If the U.N. Shut Down, ed. Pines, Burton Yale (Washington, DC, 1984), x.

53 Brooks, Roger A., Multinationals: First Victim of the UN War on Free Enterprise (Washington, DC, 1982), 13; Anon., ‘Heritage Foundation Slams “Extremist” Consumer Organisations’, Multinational Monitor, 4 (Jan. 1983), 8.

54 Brooks, Multinationals, 19.

55 Ibid., 21.

56 Ibid., 23.

57 Ibid., 24.

58 IOCU Archive, Box 102, File H88.6, telex from US State Department to US Embassies, 26 Mar. 1991.

59 IOCU Archive, Box ‘Council Meetings, 1996–2003’, File CM47/3(v), Global Policy and Campaigns Unit, ‘Summary Progress Report, November 1995–September 1996’.

60 Horowitz, Daniel, The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939–1979 (Amherst, MA, 2004).

61 John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958; Penguin edn, 1999), 188.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
  • ISSN: 0080-4401
  • EISSN: 1474-0648
  • URL: /core/journals/transactions-of-the-royal-historical-society
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed