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 globe.


Consumer rights take hold

CI50grocery50sThe 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.

Consumer boom

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.


Testing

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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.


Regional offices

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.

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Issue-based networks

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 community.


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 legislation.


The need for a global consumer voice

CI50reportsIOCU 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.


Capacity building

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 global.


WTO

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 trade.

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 EU.

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 Kenya.


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 members.


CI Today

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.


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