Esther Peterson was born in 1906, the year the United States enacted its first food inspection and safety laws. She has not only grown up with the consumer movement, but she has been an active participant, helping to shape, direct and guide. A native of Provo, she has held high-level consumer positions under three presidents: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. "Consumerism has been an important part of American political life for as long as I've lived," she says.
It is from this vantage point that she shared a look at both past accomplishments and future directions on consumerism at annual meetings of the American Council on Consumer Interests held recently in Baltimore.The Pure Food Law and the Meat Inspection Act, both written into law nearly 83 years ago, were revolutionary developments, says Peterson. "Yet, after more than four score years of consumer protection, consumers are still obliged to beware of many things without always knowing exactly how they are dangerous to our health, to the environment, to the planet, or, at the very least, to our bank accounts. Caveat emptor - let the buyer beware - may not rule the marketplace anymore, but it certainly hasn't abdicated all influence and gone into exile."
So, she says, there is still lot of work and many challenges for those involved in consumerism.
"Remember the story about the director of the U.S. Patent Office many years ago who suggested that his office be abolished because `everything worthwhile has already been invented?' We certainly don't have that complacent feeling in consumer protection."
Here's a look at some of the major directions Peterson feels consumerism will and must take as we move into the 1990s:
1. Keeping up with changing technology
We have learned over the years of consumer activism, says Peterson, that some laws that serve vital purposes when they are enacted often turn out to be less effective or even counterproductive as they age, that technology can make them obsolete. "We must campaign constantly to keep our legislation current with the changes in technology."
2. Continued focus on the "inconveniences of modern life"
Even though broader, more vital issues may grab headlines and demand increased attention, the more mundane matters will always be important to consumers - everything from deceptive advertising to faulty zippers.
3. More emphasis on global concerns
Peterson paid tribute to the late Colston Warne, founder of Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports) and the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU).
"IOCU has grown from an organization of six member groups in 1956 to 170 today, in 70 countries, all independent and all intent on making consumerism as important in their countries as it is in ours. Consumerism is now so pervasive an international influence that IOCU has memberships on every continent. In addition, consumer groups have been organized in such previously unlikely countries as Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union.
Peterson now serves as a volunteer lobbyist at the United Nations for IOCU and notes that major global issues include safety of both products and the environment. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemicals put in - and pesticide residues left in - our foods, the radiation dangers, the mounting evidence of the greenhouse effect, and all the factors working toward the destruction of the ozone layer - these are global issues, she says.
4. More action on the state level.
There is a budget deficit.
For the past eight years, she says, there has been an administration where "we've been fighting a rear-guard action to preserve past gains rather than score any important new ones, where some of our best consumer laws have been undermined at the federal level by non-administration."
But, she says, the states have often moved in to fill the vacuum. An example is auto emission standards. Seven Northeastern states already have tougher state standards than anti-smog measures recently introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those states will be given waivers by EPA, so that the tougher state standards can still be enforced.
"Uniform national standards are often better than a patchwork of differing state regulations, but a national standard should not be a lowest common denominator, an excuse for ineffectualness."
If the federal government does not do it, look for increased action on the state level.
5. Increased grass-roots involvement.
Hand-in-hand with the move toward state action is increased involvement on the grass-roots level. Don't underestimate the importance of what one person can do, says Peterson. "When I was in the White House Consumer Office or in the Labor Department as Assistant Secretary for Labor Standards, I could see and taste-truly savor-the consequences of a single letter to a single member of the House or Senate from an informed consumer with firsthand information on a matter of national concern."
That is important here--and internationally. "It was kind of grass-roots lobbying by consumer organizations in the Third World that greatly aided the adoption by the U.N. of its landmark Guidelines for Consumer Protection."
6. More single-issue coalitions.
Along these same lines, she says, consumers must remember that they are not alone in these battles, without allies. "As issues become more complicated, we need all kinds of help--techincal help, inside information, if you will. We have to form coalitions with other groups on specific issues on which we may share agreement.
"Sometimes we can find useful, if perhaps only temporary, allies where we may not expect them, in some sections of the business community. I have been impressed by the growing sense of social accountability among those executives who, for whatever good reasons--or self-interest-will work with consumerists toward worthwhile objectives. They're seeking profits; we're trying to protect or advance the well-being of people. Often these objectives seem to be mutually antagonistic, but from time to time they are not.
7. Emphasis on corporate responsibility
"There has to be a conscience!" says Peterson. "Through the United Nations as well as through IOCU initiatives, we are trying to convince all international businesses to recognize that if they do not help in achieving more fairness and justice to consumers, particularly in the poorer countries, they risk the kind of backlash businesses operating in countries other than their own deeply fear.
"I am assured that there are no longer any billboards in some Asian countries urging mothers to buy over-the-counter steroids on the promise these would make their children bigger and stronger. When I inquired about such ads, I was told this practice was stopped as a result of the outrage registered by organized consumer groups, and that such corporate irresponsibility is out of style."
Still, she says, she has talked with poor women in village stores in poor countries who were buying much-advertised tonics and vitamin preparations for their children with money they could better have spent on food.
"I've seen products no longer legally sellable in the United States being hawked abroad by American firms, and also by British, German, Dutch, French and other nations.
"If we hadn't become concerned about things like this before, we certainly have to be conscious of them now that the world is so close."
8. Continued focus on consumer education.
Of all consumer issues of the '90s, none may be more important than education.
"Ileave you with this friendly 'directive' from an old warrior in the consumer battles," says Peterson. "Use your skills as consumer educators, and your knowledge, to educate your fellow citizens on the need to confront our pressing consumer and environmental issues. It is only wishful thinking to believe they can just be shelved until some great tomorrow when 'things are better' or when the economy is 'more normal' or when people are less inclined to expect the good life on the cheap. Believe me, at 82, I have never seen that day occur!
"Meanwhile, I am greatly encouraged by the growing consumer movement that is becoming, throughout the world, a positive force for constructive change. Be part of it, and know you can and do make a difference."