Consumer Reports

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Consumer Reports

Published since 1936, Consumer Reports has established a reputation as a leading source of unbiased reporting about products and services likely to be used by the typical American. It counts itself among the ten most widely disseminated periodicals in the United States, with a circulation in 1998 of 4.6 million. In all of its more than sixty years of production, the journal has never accepted free samples, advertisements, or grants from any industry, business, or agency. Maintaining this strict independence from interest groups has helped make Consumer Reports a trusted source of information.

Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union, a not-forprofit organization based in Yonkers, New York. Along with the print monthly, Consumers Union also creates and distributes many guide books for consumers, such as the Supermarket Buying Guide and the Auto Insurance Handbook, as well as newsletters about travel and health issues, and a children's magazine called Zillions. There are Consumer Reports syndicated radio and television shows, and a popular and successful web page with millions of subscribers. Stating its mission as to "test products, inform the public and protect consumers," Consumers Union has more than 450 persons on its staff and operates fifty test labs in nine departments: appliances, automobiles, chemicals, electronics, foods, home environment, public service, recreation and home improvement. The Union operates three advocacy offices, in Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, that help citizens with questions, complaints, and legal action about products and services. Consumers Union was also instrumental in the formation of the Consumer Policy Institute in Yonkers, which does research in such areas as biotechnology and pollution; and Consumer International, founded in 1960, which seeks to unite worldwide consumer interests. All together, the organizations that comprise Consumers Union have been pivotal in the creation of a consumer movement and have been responsible for many defective product recalls, fines on offending industries, and much consumer-protection legislation.

The history of the founding of Consumer Reports gives a condensed picture of the consumer movement in the United States. In 1926, Frederick Schlink, an engineer in White Plains, New York, founded a "consumer club," with the goal of better informing citizens about the choices of products and services facing them. With the industrial revolution not far behind them, consumers in the 1920s were faced with both the luxury and the dilemma of being able to purchase many manufactured items that had formerly had to be custom made. Schlink's club distributed mimeographed lists of warnings and recommendations about products. By 1928, the little club had expanded into a staffed organization called Consumers' Research, whose journal, Consumers' Research Bulletin, accepted no advertising. That same year Schlink and another Consumers' Research director, engineer Arthur Kallet, published a book about consumer concerns called 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics.

In 1933, when Schlink moved his organization to the small town of Washington, New Jersey, he was confronted with his own ethical dilemmas. When some of his own employees formed a union, Schlink fired them, prompting a strike by forty other workers demanding a minimum-wage guarantee and reinstatement of their fired colleagues. Schlink responded by accusing the strikers of being communists and by hiring scabs. In 1936, the Consumers' Research strikers formed their own organization with Arthur Kallet at its head. They called it Consumers Union. Their original charter promised to "test and give information to the public on products and services" in the hopes of "maintaining decent living standards for ultimate consumers."

Early Consumers Union product research was limited because of lack of funds to buy expensive products to test, but they did research on items of everyday concern to Depression-era consumers, such as soaps and credit unions. Within three months of its formation, Consumers Union published the first issue of Consumers Union Reports, continuing the tradition of refusing commercial support. Along with information on product safety and reliability, the new journal maintained a leftist slant by reporting on social issues such as business labor practices. Its first editorial stated, "All the technical information in the world will not give enough food or enough clothes to the textile worker's family living on $11 a week." Threatened by this new progressive consumer movement, business began to fight back. Red-baiting articles appeared in such mainstream journals as Reader's Digest and Good Housekeeping. Between 1940 and 1950, the union appeared on government lists of subversive organizations.

By 1942, Consumers Union Reports had become simply Consumer Reports to broaden its public appeal. Both consumption and the purchase of consumer research had been slowed by the Depression and World War II, but with the return of consumer spending after 1945, the demand for Consumer Reports subscriptions shot up. In the postwar economic boom, businesses had very consciously and successfully urged citizens to become consumers. Having learned to want more than food and shelter, people also learned to want more in less material arenas. They wanted something called "quality of life." They wanted clean air and water, they wanted to be able to trust the goods and services they purchased, and they wanted their government to protect their safety in these areas.

In the boom economy of the 1950s and 1960s, business felt it had little to fear from organized consumers and did little to fight back. This, combined with the rise of socially conscious progressive movements, gave a boost of power and visibility to the consumer movement. In 1962, liberal president John F. Kennedy introduced the "consumer bill of rights," delineating for the first time that citizens had a right to quality goods. The same year, Congress overcame the protests of the garment industry to pass laws requiring that children's clothing be made from flame-resistant fabric. In 1964, the Department of Labor hired lawyer Ralph Nader to investigate automobile safety, resulting in landmark vehicle-safety legislation. A committed consumer activist, Nader joined the Consumers Union board of directors from 1967 through 1975.

In 1962, Rachael Carson sparked a new view of the environment with her ecological manifesto, Silent Spring, a work so clearly connected to the consumer movement that Consumers Union published a special edition. The new environmentalists did research that resulted in the passage in 1963 of the first Clean Air Act and in 1965 of the Clean Water Act.

The consumer movement and the movement to clean up the environment attracted much popular support. By 1967, the Consumer Federation of America had been formed, a coalition of 140 smaller local groups. The long-established Consumers Union opened its office in Washington, D.C. to better focus on its lobbying work. Working together, these groups and other activists were responsible for the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and countless laws instituting safety standards, setting up fair business practices, and regulating pollution.

The thriving consumer movement is one of the most significant legacies of the turbulent period of social change that spanned the period from the 1950s through the 1970s. As more and more products and services have been introduced, activists have continued to instigate legislation and create organizations and networks to help consumers cope with the flood of options. From its roots as a club for consumer advice, Consumers Union has grown into a notable force for consumer and environmental protection, offering research and advice on every imaginable topic of interest to consumers from automobiles and appliances to classical music recordings, legal services, and funerals. It has retained a high standard of ethics and value pertaining to the rights of the common citizen. For most of them, thoughts of a large purchase almost inevitably lead to the question, "Have you checked Consumer Reports ?" The organization has clung to its progressive politics while weathering the distrust of big business about its motivations and effectiveness.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

"Consumer Reports." http://www.consumerreports.org. May1999.

Gelston, Steven W. A Guide to Documents of the Consumer Movement: A National Catalog of Source Material. Mount Vernon, New York, Consumers' Union Foundation, 1980.

Silber, Norman Isaac. Test and Protest: The Influence of Consumers Union. New York, Holmes and Meier, 1983.

Warne, Colston E. The Consumer Movement: Lectures. Manhattan, Kansas, Family Economics Trust Press, 1993.