Consumers International Is Founded

Consumer organizations in five nations created the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU)—the foundation for what later became Consumers International—to act as the “voice of the international consumer movement on issues such as product and food standards, health and patients’ rights, the environment and sustainable consumption, and the regulation of international trade and public utilities.”

Summary of Event

The exigencies of capitalism understandably focus suppliers of goods and services on creating profits. By necessity, such suppliers are generally well organized and articulate when it comes to protecting their interests. Individual consumers, however, are not. They are alone in the marketplace and are often ill-equipped to balance competing claims and make optimal decisions. Consumer organizations were created to alter the informational imbalance between consumers and producers. Independent and noncommercial, their purpose is to speak up for consumers and safeguard consumer interests. Among their chief objectives is to publish unbiased information about goods and services gathered through comparative testing that considers such factors as safety, price, quality, and environmental concerns. In these ways, consumer organizations promote the right of individuals to make wise and safe choices. International Organization of Consumers Unions
Consumers International
Consumer rights
[kw]Consumers International Is Founded (Apr. 1, 1960)
International Organization of Consumers Unions
Consumers International
Consumer rights
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[g]Australia;Apr. 1, 1960: Consumers International Is Founded[06460]
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Kallet, Arthur
Warne, Colston
Mason, Florence

During the first half of the twentieth century, consumer organizations were established in many countries. One of the first and most successful was Consumers Union of the United States. Formed in 1936, the organization became an integral part of the American consumer movement and an internationally respected institution. Organizations in Europe also began testing products and publishing information about their quality and safety. Despite common goals and activities, however, these national consumer movements were isolated. There was no coordination to prevent duplication of effort; to push for common product, health, and safety standards; or to spread the consumer movement to other countries. In an attempt to correct these deficiencies and advance consumer rights, five consumer organizations—from Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States—founded the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) on April 1, 1960.

The IOCU was a nongovernmental, nonprofit international foundation that served to link the activities of many national consumer organizations around the world. Originally named the International Office of Consumers Unions, the group’s aims were to promote consumer movements and consumer rights worldwide. The IOCU organized information networks, sponsored international conferences and workshops, conducted research, collected and disseminated information, and represented consumer interests in other international organizations. It established its international headquarters in The Hague and regional offices worldwide.

Associate members with full voting privileges had to be nonprofit groups acting exclusively in the interest of consumers and refusing to accept financial or other support from corporations, industry groups, or political organizations. Consumer groups that did not qualify as associate members or chose not to pay dues were still able to participate in IOCU activities as supporting members or correspondents.

The formal organization of the IOCU was composed of a general assembly containing one voting delegate from each associate organization. The assembly selected a twenty-member governing council, which in turn designated a six-member executive committee to handle administrative matters. The IOCU also convened triennial world congresses at which representatives from member organizations gathered. These activities were financed primarily through members’ dues, but funds also came from grants and publication sales. The budget, set by the council, was initially small but growing, rising from $100,000 in 1970 to several million dollars for today’s Consumers International.

The organization advanced consumer rights not only through a wide variety of activities but also through interorganizational relationships, assisting consumer groups in promoting consumer rights at the government level; fostering international cooperation in comparative testing of goods and services; collecting and disseminating information relating to consumer interests, laws, and practices; providing a forum for national consumer organizations to discuss consumer problems and possible solutions; representing consumer interests in the United Nations and other international bodies; and providing assistance and encouragement to consumer education and protection programs in developing countries.

From its inception in 1960, IOCU was almost exclusively an organization promoting international cooperation in the comparative testing of consumer goods and services, facilitating exchange of test methods and plans, and furthering the dissemination of product information based on comparative tests. The expansion of its chosen portfolio was first clearly seen (and criticized by some as overly political and contentious) in the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, during which IOCU representatives emphasized broad consumer and environmental issues Environmental organizations;International Organization of Consumers Unions and criticized multinational corporations.

The original goals of producing and disseminating information remained, however, a vital part of the organization. Activities in this area included maintaining working groups on product testing, consumer education, medical issues, air transport, and other matters. The IOCU library in Penang, Malaysia, collected and distributed legislative, technical, and educational data relevant to consumer interests. IOCU conducted studies on a variety of consumer issues, including the dumping of dangerous drugs in developing countries, the use of pesticides, and the production and marketing of baby food. The organization led development of an international warning system to alert individuals and consumer organizations of products that were banned, recalled, or controlled in any part of the world.

The IOCU established important relationships with numerous international governmental and nongovernmental organizations. The IOCU had consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and built official relationships with a number of the specialized agencies of the United Nations, including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Children’s Fund. These relationships enabled the IOCU to represent consumer issues during international negotiations and policy making.


Today, the IOCU has become Consumers International (CI), an independent, nonprofit group that maintains the same goals as the old IOCU and now boasts a worldwide membership of more than 220 member organizations in 115 nations. It maintains four offices worldwide: in Accra, Ghana; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; London, United Kingdom; and Santiago, Chile.

CI has played an important role in advancing consumer interests, particularly in developing nations, by coordinating and augmenting the efforts of national consumer organizations. The organization’s impact is seen through its distinctive capacity to promote consumer interests in international forums, sponsor international conferences and workshops, and produce and distribute information.

Consumers International has official representation at agencies of the United Nations and lobbies the World Trade Organization and other global and regional bodies on behalf of consumers. Among the international bodies are the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and related United Nations agencies and commissions, World Health Organization (WHO), Codex Alimentarius Commission, International Organization for Standardisation (ISO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). CI also represents consumers at the regional and subregional levels, through United Nations regional economic commissions, the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Latin American Parliament (PARLATINO), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Perhaps most significant, the IOCU has been instrumental in the increasing formalization and recognition of the concept of consumers’ rights, as outlined in eight basic rights promulgated by the organization. CI focuses on several areas of consumer interest, including policies and regulations that promote competition; consumer education; corporate responsibility as outlined in CI’s Consumers International Consumer Charter for Global Business; food safety, security, and sustainability as supported through its Food and Nutrition Program (launched in 2002); health, particularly healthy food for infants and the elimination of tobacco products; enhancement of the public domain through liberal intellectual property trade agreements; fair and equitable distribution of public utilities such as energy, water, and telecommunications; trade agreements that benefit consumers; technical standards that ensure the safety and reliability of goods, including secondhand goods; and sustainable consumption to protect the environment. International Organization of Consumers Unions
Consumers International
Consumer rights

Further Reading

  • Aaker, David A., and George S. Day, eds. Consumerism: Search for the Consumer Interest. 3d ed. New York: Free Press, 1978. This large and generally strong collection of essays gives the reader a broad understanding of consumerism as a social movement and its impact on the marketplace. Among the issues considered are historical and current perspectives on consumerism; advertising; safety and liability; and government and industry responses. Includes references and index.
  • Brobeck, Stephen, Robert N. Mayer, and Robert O. Herrmann, eds. Encyclopedia of the Consumer Movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1997. The 198 entries in this alphabetically arranged reference are written by academics and advocate specialists and cover topics from the history of the movement to its current status around the world to narrow topics such as airline deregulation, children’s marketing, lemon laws, and telemarketing. Biographical entries on pioneers of the movement, from Ralph Nader to Colston Warne, as well as the major institutions and organizations, are also included.
  • Consumers Union of the United States. Testing: Behind the Scenes at “Consumer Reports,” 1936-1986. Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Author, 1986. This book offers a fascinating photographic history of Consumers Union and the issues it has examined. Each topic is addressed through a brief essay and an often beautiful and always interesting photograph from Consumers Union’s archives. Unique and informative.
  • Mayer, Robert N. Consumer Movement: Guardians of the Marketplace. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A basic overview of the history of the movement as of the late 1980’s, designed for the general reader.
  • Silber, Norman Issac. Test and Protest: The Influence of Consumers Union. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983. A well-written examination of the history and influence of Consumers Union of the United States. Includes general histories of consumer protest and scientific consumer reform as well as case studies of three critical battles: smoking, automobile design safety, and food contamination by radioactive fallout. Outstanding references, bibliographic essay, and index.
  • Thorelli, Hans B., and Sarah V. Thorelli. Consumer Information Systems and Consumer Policy. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1977. The last and best of a three-volume International Consumer Information Survey, a seven-year research project. This comprehensive text provides an integrated and comparative analysis of the history, purpose, content, and impact of consumer information systems in North America and Western Europe. Excellent references, tables, figures, bibliography, and index.

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