Consumer advocacy refers to actions taken by individuals or groups to promote and protect the interests of the buying public. Historically, consumer advocates have assumed a somewhat adversarial role in exposing unfair business practices or unsafe products that threaten the welfare of the general public. Consumer advocates use tactics like publicity, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and lawsuits to raise awareness of issues affecting consumers and to counteract the financial and political power of the organizations they target. Since even large businesses can be visibly wounded when their mistreatment of consumers or other constituencies arouses the ire of consumer advocacy organizations, it should be obvious to small business owners that they can ill-afford to engage in business practices that might draw the attention of consumer advocates.
Periods of vocal consumer advocacy around the turn of the twentieth century and in the late 1960s have left a legacy of federal legislation and agencies intended to protect consumers in the United States. The rights of consumers have expanded to include product safety, the legitimacy of advertising claims, the satisfactory resolution of grievances, and a say in government decisions. In the early days of industry, companies could afford to ignore consumers’ wishes because there was so much demand for their goods and services. As a result, they were often able to command high prices for products of poor quality. The earliest consumer advocates to point out such abuses were called “muckrakers,” and their revelations of underhanded business practices spurred the creation of several federal agencies and a flurry of legislation designed to curb some of the most serious abuses. At the same time, increased competition began to provide consumers with more choices among a variety of products of higher quality. Still, some notable cases of corporations neglecting the public welfare for their own gain continued, and corporate influence in American politics enabled many businesses to resist calls for reform in advertising, worker or consumer safety, and pollution control.
This situation led to the consumer movement of the 1960s. One of the country’s most outspoken and controversial consumer advocates, lawyer Ralph Nader, came to the forefront during this time. Nader’s effective and well-publicized denunciations of the American automobile industry included class-action lawsuits and calls for recalls of allegedly defective products, and many of his actions served as a tactical model for future advocacy organizations.
The efforts of Nader and other activists led to the formation of several federal agencies designed to protect consumer interests. The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, created in 1971, investigates and resolves consumer complaints, conducts consumer surveys, and disseminates product information to the public. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, formed in 1972, sets national standards for product safety and testing procedures, coordinates product recalls, and ensures that companies respond to valid consumer complaints. Many other government agencies have responsibilities that include the safety of consumers, among their many responsibilities. They include such agencies as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Some state-level agencies are also involved in the regulation of products and services in order to assure the safety of the public. And the Better Business Bureau is an organization strongly involved in monitoring safety issues related to business activity.
The Consumer Federation of America is the largest consumer advocacy group in the United States, consisting of about 220 member organizations. The International Organization of Consumers Unions, based in the Netherlands, actively promotes consumer interests on a global scale. In the late 1990s, the widespread networking of home computers advanced consumer advocacy by making it easier for citizens to gather information and make their views known. Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century, the Internet had emerged as an important weapon in the arsenal of consumer advocates.
Its usefulness as a vehicle for spreading consumer information quickly and widely has made it one of the primary means by which public interest advocates mobilize opposition to corporate policies.
The use of computers, the Internet, and the spread of e-commerce have all contributed to new areas of concern for consumer advocates. Identity theft is on the rise and the safety of children working on the Internet is of concern to many parents, law enforcement officers, legislators and consumer advocates.