Consumer activism

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Apple store in Central Park a symbol of consumerism.

Consumer activism is a process by which activists seek to influence the way in which goods or services are produced or delivered. Kozinets and Handelman attempt to define the broad concept as any social movement that uses society's drive for consumption to the detriment of business interests.[1] Consumer activism includes both activism on behalf of consumers for consumer protection and activism by consumers themselves.[2] Consumerism is made up of the behaviors, institutions, and ideologies created from the interaction between humans and materials and services of which they consume.[3] Consumer activism has several aims:

  1. Change the social structure of consumption[4]
  2. Protect the social welfare of stakeholders
  3. Satisfy perceived slights to the ego[5]
  4. Seek justice for the consumer and environment in the relationships of consumerism


Historian Lawrence B. Glickman identifies the free produce movement of the late 1700s as the beginning of consumer activism in the United States.[6] Like members of the British abolitionist movement, free produce activists were consumers themselves, and under the idea that consumers share in the responsibility for the consequences of their purchases, boycotted goods produced with slave labor in an attempt to end slavery.[6] Other early consumer activism included the creation of consumer cooperatives in Northwestern England in 1844 as a measure against local monopolies and high commodity prices.[7]

Activism on the behalf of the consumer began around the 20th Century in the United States, in what scholars Tim Lang and Yiannis Gabriel term the "value-for-consumer" wave, and which sociologist Hayagreeva Rao calls the antiadulteration movement.[7][4] It was during this time that consumer organizations began to emerge in the United States, starting with a Consumers League in New York in 1891 which merged with other regional branches to form the National Consumers League in 1898.[7] One of the first consumer protection laws in the United States and worldwide, the Pure Food and Drug Act, was passed in 1906. More legislation around the world followed. During this time consumer-led activism like boycotts continued, largely in response to domestic and international socio-political concerns.[6]

The publication of Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader in 1965 gave rise to a new type of legal-focused, anti-corporate activism.[7] Whereas past activism had focused on the consequences of consumer actions and the protection of consumers, Lang and Gabriel argue the activism inspired by Ralph Nader and others is more confrontational toward the market.[7] From the 1990s and into the 21st century, consumer activism has been closely associated with sharp critiques of globalization and the damaging effects of concentrated corporate power.[8]

Objectives and tactics[edit]

Religious terms, such as David and Goliath, may be used in rhetoric to motivate non-activist consumers to join in the activism.

Consumer activism seeks to change some aspect of the way in which goods or services are produced in order to make the production process safer, more ethical, more environmentally friendly, and to make the products themselves safer and of better quality, or more available to consumers.[4] As a result, consumer activism challenges existing corporate practices in order to effect a direct change in production, or attempts to modify some aspect of the behavior of consumers themselves.[4]

Scholars Robert V. Kozinets and Jay M. Handelman find that consumer activism needs three factors: "a goal, a self-representation, and an adversary."[4] In this model, the goal is the change consumer activists wish to effect in the way goods or services are produced or in the way consumers themselves approach consumption. Consumer activists may frame the purchase of a good or service as a moral choice, with the consumer partly responsible for aspects of the production.[2] In this way, consumer activists attempt to influence the behavior of consumers by getting them to consider their consumption choices in an ethical light,[2] and portray consumer activism as a movement among consumers, themselves included, for a common good.[4] Consumer activists may also be part of various consumer organizations or portray themselves as members of a larger consumer movement.

The targets of consumer activism are often corporations that support causes or practices consumer activists find unethical.[4][9] Corporations are made the recipients of consumer activism based on an aspect of the way in which they do business or because of organizations they choose to support, financially or otherwise.[9] Religious terms, such as David and Goliath, may be used in rhetoric to motivate non-activist consumers to join in the activism.[4] Activists may target multiple corporations and describe them as their rival. Consumer activism may also target the state in order to implement some form of regulation for consumer protection.

Consumer activist tactics can include boycotts, petitioning the government, media activism, and organizing interest groups.[4] Boycotts are especially prevalent among consumer activists within environmental and animal rights activist groups. According to research from Eastern Michigan University, boycotts that are media-orientated rather than marketplace-orientated are preferred. This means the nature of the boycott did not target actual consumption, by demonstrating in front of a storefront for example, but instead demonstrations are orientated to getting media attention by demonstrating in front of the rival headquarters. Boycotts are occasionally criticized for being ineffective but the media appeal and a few big successes from groups like PETA have sustained their popularity.[10]

The Internet plays a major role in modern consumer activism, allowing widespread consumer interest groups to support each other in their efforts to resist globalized consumption patterns.[11] This is especially true as anti-brand and anti-corporation groups seek to create a coordinated opposition as multinational and interregional as the opposed business. Often these communities provide a crucial central place to accumulate and share resources and information In these and other strategies, consumer activists seek to increase the exposure of their cause and to gain political support. The speed, convenience, and propensity for coalition building make the internet an ideal place for consumers to run their activism.[12] Overall, the Internet allows for more mobilization by supporters, both inside and outside the group, to protest and get their message heard.[13]


The 1990s[edit]

Described as the "granddaddy of all activist campaigns"[14] Nike came under fire for utilizing subcontracted international factories to produce their products. Nike sweatshops became notorious for subpar working conditions and substandard pay. The reaction to this news resulted in an onslaught of activism that laid the foundation for modern consumer activism.[15]

Early 2000s Starbucks campaign[edit]

In 2001 and in 2002 various movements arose where consumers protested against Starbucks. Their demands were that Starbucks stop using GMOs and start making their coffee from fair trade certified beans.[16] As a result, Starbucks started using Fair Trade coffee in over 2,300 outlets.

2010 Greenpeace boycott against Kit Kat[edit]

Greenpeace found that palm oil production used in Kit Kats was destroying the rainforests and habitats of orangutans. Through massive social media activity, Greenpeace forced Kit Kat to cut all ties with Sinar Mas the company that was providing the palm oil.[17] Kit Kat later pledged to use only rainforest-sustainable palm oil by 2015. This movement is hailed as a notable success in consumer activism.

2017 Delete Uber movement[edit]

After the ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries to the United States was imposed in January 2017, protests arose in many airports of the country. In JFK airport, the car service company Uber was criticized for not canceling their service and allegedly using the event to gain profits. This led to a twitter campaign of #deleteuber where over 200,000 users deleted the app.[18] Later it was announced that the CEO of uber Travis Kalanick would leave his position as advisor in the economic advisory council of president Trump.


Some activists perceive the consumer public as unthinking, ignorant, and routine in their thoughts of consumption[who?]. Activist accounts describe these people as unreflective and unwilling to "consider" their habits and lifestyles.[4] They may be believed to not insert moral or social ideas into their consumption. Other perceptions of customers are also expressed by activists, including the idea that consumers are submissive to corporations. The activists themselves may be described as dominating and oppressive to the consuming public.[4]

Opponents of consumer activism often represent business interests.[4] Some businesses have brought lawsuits against consumer groups for making negative comments about their products or services. Many of the suits have been successfully defended as exercises in free speech. Some cases against consumer activists have been dismissed under anti-SLAPP laws.

Notable activists and organizations[edit]

Notable consumer activists include Carol Foreman, Marc Kasky, Richard Kessel, Virginia H. Knauer, Eileen Hoats, Ralph Nader, Frances Perkins, Michael Pertschuk, and Peter A. Peyser.

Notable consumer organizations include Grahak Shakti (India), Public Citizen, Consumers Union, and Consumer Federation of America.[19] These organizations protect consumer rights by testing products and helping consumers make informed choices. The Consumers Union participates in consumer activism with hundreds of thousands of "e-advocates" who write letters to policy makers. Early versions of consumer organizations were similar to trade unions in how they would boycott to try to improve the marketplace for the consumer.[20]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Friedman M (1995). On Promoting a Sustainable Future Through Consumer Activism. Journal of Social Issues.
  • Glickman, Lawrence B. (2009). Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. University of Chicago Press ISBN 978-0-226-29865-8
  • Mayer RN (1989). The Consumer Movement: Guardians of the Marketplace. Twayne Publishing
  • Chesler MA (1991). Mobilizing consumer activism in health care: The role of self-help groups - Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change.
  • Kozinets RV, Handelman JM. Adversaries of Consumption: Consumer Movements, Activism, and Ideology. Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 31 • December 2004.
  • Hilton, Matthew (2008). Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization Cornell University Press ISBN 978-0-8014-7507-8

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kozinet, Robert (2004). "Adversaries of Consumption: Consumer Movements, Activism, and Ideology" (PDF). Journal of Consumer Research. 31: 691. 
  2. ^ a b c Glickman, Lawrence B. (2004). "‘Buy for the Sake of the Slave’: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism". American Quarterly. 56 (4): 905–906 – via JSTOR. 
  3. ^ Martin, Ann Smart (1993-07-01). "Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework". Winterthur Portfolio. 28 (2/3): 141–157. ISSN 0084-0416. doi:10.1086/496612. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Kozinets, Robert V.; Handelman, Jay M. (2004). "Adversaries of Consumption: Consumer Movements, Activism, and Ideology". Journal of Consumer Research. 31 (3): 691–704 – via JSTOR. 
  5. ^ Jayasimha, K.R.; Billore, Aditya (2016). "I complain for your good? Re-examining consumer advocacy". Journal of Strategic Marketing. 24 (5). 
  6. ^ a b c Glickman, Lawrence B. (2004). "‘Buy for the Sake of the Slave’: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism". American Quarterly. 56 (4): 889–912 – via JSTOR. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Lang, Tim; Gabriel, Yiannis. A Brief History of Consumer Activism. pp. 35–45 – via 
  8. ^ Kolb, Robert W. (2008-01-01). Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society. SAGE. ISBN 9781412916523. 
  9. ^ a b Swimberghe, Krist; Flurry, Laura A.; Parker, Janna M. (2011). "Consumer Religiosity: Consequences for Consumer Activism in the United States". Journal of Business Ethics. 103 (3): 453–467 – via JSTOR. 
  10. ^ Friedman, Monroe (1995). "On Promoting a Sustainable Future through Consumer Activism". Journal of Social Issues. 51: 197–215. 
  11. ^ R., Hollenbeck, Candice; M., Zinkhan, George (2006-01-01). "Consumer Activism on the Internet: the Role of Anti-Brand Communities". NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 33. 
  12. ^ Hollenbeck, Candice (2006). "Consumer Activism on the Internet: the Role of Anti-Brand Communities". Advances in Consumer Research. 33: 479–485. 
  13. ^ Jenkins, J. Craig & Wallace, Michael:"The Generalized Action Potential of Protest Movements: The New Class, Social Trends, and Political Exclusion Explanations", p. 188. Sociological Forum. Springer. Vol. 11, No. 2. 1996.
  14. ^ Gunther, Marc (February 9, 2015). "Under Pressure: campaigns that persuaded companies to change the world". The Guardian. Retrieved 3/4/2017.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  15. ^ Bullert, B.J. (2000). "Progressive Public Relations, Sweatshops and the Net". Political Communications. 17. 
  16. ^ "Activists Step Up Global Campaign Against Starbucks". Retrieved 2017-03-04. 
  17. ^ Skapinker, Michael (2010-06-01). "Nestlé learns to see the wood for the trees". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved 2017-03-04. 
  18. ^ Isaac, Mike (2017-02-02). "Uber C.E.O. to Leave Trump Advisory Council After Criticism". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-04. 
  19. ^ Burros, Marian (June 2, 1976). Strengthening Consumer Activism. Washington Post
  20. ^ Rao, Hayagreeva (1998-01-01). "Caveat Emptor: The Construction of Nonprofit Consumer Watchdog Organizations". American Journal of Sociology. 103 (4): 912–961. ISSN 0002-9602. doi:10.1086/231293. 

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