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Righteous Consumption : Consumer Activism in the United States and England, 1880-1920

  • Author(s): Skotnicki, Tad Peter
  • et al.

In capitalist societies, consumers use a range of goods mass produced under conditions of they know very little. Over the last two centuries, many consumer activists have sought to remedy this ignorance and promote ethical purchasing as a solution to problems such as labor exploitation, poverty, and public health issues. This dissertation examines the late nineteenth and early twentieth century origins of modern consumer activism as it arose out of consumers' encounter with anonymous goods. By comparing three pioneering groups of consumer activists -- the National Consumers' League, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and the Women's Co-operative Guild -- we can see how this basic problem of anonymous mass- produced goods shaped their activism. It draws on the extensive archival records of these groups as well as their contemporaries to trace and compare the dynamics of their activism. Despite their contrasting origins, character, and structure, these turn-of-the-twentieth- century activists defined the problem of anonymous goods similarly. Activists also pursued similar strategies to encourage others to purchase ethically-made goods: to make consumers see through the anonymous commodities into the conditions under which distant workers labored. Although they were confronted with similar problems, activists sometimes pursued different paths in accordance with their contrasting origins, character, and structure. Thus, when in conflict with labor unions and businesses or with unruly consumer desires, these groups pursued distinctive solutions to the basic problem of anonymous goods. Ultimately, this dissertation shows that activists pursued similar strategies when they addressed the problem of anonymous goods directly. However, when they appealed to consumers, laborers, or other groups, they differed along familiar lines such as class, gender, national origin, and organizational form

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