History of the consumer movement
This brief history of the consumer movement is based on
writing by Julian Edwards (CI Director General 1996-2005) and shows
how CI can bring together consumer groups across the
Consumer rights take hold
first ever international conference of leaders from consumer
organisations took place in The Hague on March 1960. Five of the 17
organisations present signed papers to create the International
Organisation of Consumers Unions (IOCU). The global consumer
movement was born.
The increasing number of consumer goods on offer was accompanied
by rising wages across Europe and North America. Consumer
organisations sprang up to analyse the products, provide
independent advice, and to challenge rogue traders.
The following years saw a steady expansion in testing
collaboration among these new organisations and a widening of focus
for IOCU. Newly formed groups were invited to join from across the
world and IOCU's first global newsletter was launched.
The developing world
Meanwhile at the biennial conferences that IOCU organised,
leaders spoke of a wider consumer agenda, and particularly the need
to address poverty, access to basic goods and services, and the
challenges faced by consumers in developing countries.
In the early 1970s, a regional office was created in Asia. Its
advisory committee came from India, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji and
the Philippines, a very different stakeholder group from the
founders of IOCU itself.
Anwar Fazal, head of the Asia Pacific Office, took IOCU into new
ways of campaigning and advocacy.
He targeted transnational corporations with specific
campaigns, and played a leading role in setting up issue-based
networks with partners from outside the consumer movement,
including the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).
These networks were early pioneers of a new method of
campaigning for NGOs, which brought together disparate groups on a
particular issue for a particular purpose. IOCU's role in the
networks made it one of the early leaders of the international NGO
UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection
These methods and activities brought results. Among them, the
seminal international document of the consumer movement - the
United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection - was adopted by
the UN in 1985 after 10 years of campaigning. This gave important
legitimacy to the principles of consumer rights and practical
support for developing national consumer protection
The need for a global consumer voice
published a Latin American newsletter through its member
organisation in Mexico from 1981 and eventually opened a regional
office in Uruguay in 1986.
Work began in Africa in the late 1980s leading to the set up of
a regional office in Zimbabwe in 1994.
Through the 1990s IOCU managed extensive capacity building
programmes in all parts of the world, training both in methods
(such as institutional management, research and fundraising) and on
specific issues. Membership numbers increased to nearly 250 from
around 115 countries. The consumer movement had indeed become
Advocacy began to focus on international trade negotiations,
particularly those of the newly formed World Trade Organisation
(WTO). IOCU also increased its work at the International
Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and the Codex Alimentarius
Commission (food standards) as international standards became the
reference point for disputes about artificial barriers to
These developments in global governance made it increasingly
difficult for individual countries to adopt national standards that
were different from those agreed internationally.
IOCU becomes Consumers International
By the late 1990s, a much-altered organisation was in place, a
transition symbolised by a change of name from IOCU to Consumers
International (CI) in 1995.
Campaigning and member development was a particular priority in
Central and Eastern Europe and in Africa. In the former, CI helped
create a sustainable consumer presence very nearly from scratch in
countries struggling first with democracy and transition to market
economies, and then with the demands of preparations to join the
Many publications appeared in three languages. World Congresses
were held for the first time in Latin America (Chile, 1997) and
then Africa (South Africa, 2000). And CI's Presidents came,
successively, from Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil and
New consumer issues
CI facilitated member participation in trade, food and technical
standards activities; taking a 40-strong delegation to the WTO
ministerial in Cancun, and getting Codex and ISO to provide
training and improved access to meetings. Other consumer problems
also became more prominent - for example, access to and the
management of utilities services, the regulation of GMOs, and
protecting consumer rights in the digital age.
As CI's work on these issues continued through the 2000s, its
range of campaign targets and techniques developed too. Critical
engagement with transnational corporations increased, but so did
demands for accountability and responsibility. New communication
techniques, such as email, online forums, project-specific websites
and campaign films were used to raise awareness and engage with
Today the founding principles of the movement still energise and
inspire people and organisations throughout the CI membership. The
focus has broadened to address poverty reduction, corporate
responsibility, services and sustainable consumption as well as
providing advice on consumer products. As the movement enters its
second 50 years, its commitment to campaigning, advocacy and
engagement continues to grow.
comments powered by