“Ethical Consumption” Used to Mean Something More Than Feeling Smug About Your Purchases

Today “ethical consumerism” mostly refers to individuals feeling morally righteous about what they buy. But the consumers movement was once motivated by the broader, collective goal of democratic management of the economy.

Helen Hall (R, front), chair of the Consumers’ National Federation, with a committee at the White House making demands for a "new deal" for consumers, 1938. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The term “ethical consumerism” is, today, largely associated with individual efforts to make more conscientious choices about what products and services to buy. We might try to buy from companies that market themselves as environmentally friendly or avoid brands that we know are engaged in egregious labor abuses.

These efforts are obviously well-intentioned. But while they may have some minimal impact in pushing individual companies toward less destructive practices for public relations purposes, they do almost nothing to address the systemic problems of climate change, sweatshop labor, and the like. They allow consumers to feel better about their purchases, but efforts at shopping ethically are usually disconnected from any broader vision of social change — and from larger movements that could bring about that sort of change.

It wasn’t always this way. In the United States beginning in the Progressive Era, a movement composed largely of middle- and upper-middle-class women organized under the banner of “ethical consumption” to demand labor protections and minimum-wage laws. Their efforts initially focused on eliminating child labor and addressing the plight of low-wage women workers. But by the New Deal era, voluntary-membership consumers’ groups were fighting for protections for all workers, including collective bargaining rights.

In the 1930s, leaders of groups like the National Consumers’ League (NCL) and the League of Women Shoppers (LWS) — many of whom were social democrats, socialists, or Communists — saw these fights as part of a larger effort to curb the power of big business and empower ordinary people, as both workers and consumers, by raising their “purchasing power.” This was necessary to prevent the kind of egregious inequality that made the Great Depression possible, consumer activists thought, and to thereby strengthen American democracy.

A number of factors worked to marginalize this current of left-wing activism in the postwar period, but not before the movement had chalked up significant victories, most notably the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. This largely forgotten history is worth revisiting, as it reminds us of the importance of connecting ethical criticisms of capitalist business-as-usual to large-scale visions of social change. It also underlines the importance of tapping into the force most capable of realizing those visions: the organized working class.

Consumer Movement Organizations and Leadership

The NCL was among the most important of the consumer movement groups. It was founded in 1899, emerging out of an effort to put public pressure on employers who treated their employees badly. According to historian Landon R. Y. Storrs, the NCL’s membership peaked in 1916 when it had sixteen thousand members across forty-three states. The group was led by progressive, reform-minded middle-class women; among its most important early leaders was Florence Kelley, a friend of Eugene V. Debs and a member of the Socialist Party of America.

One of its most important leaders was Mary Dublin, another Socialist Party member, who became head of the NCL in 1938. As leader of the league, Storrs writes, Dublin

coordinated successful NCL campaigns for the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the first permanent national standards for a minimum wage and maximum hours, and against weakening the National Labor Relations Act. She also pushed the NCL into bold initiatives on behalf of labor standards for domestic workers, national health insurance, and a labor-consumer political alliance.

(Dublin later married Leon Keyserling, Senator Robert Wagner’s aide, who drafted the National Labor Relations Act; Keyserling was apparently wowed by testimony Dublin gave to Congress defending the act against opponents who wanted to water it down.)

Another important consumer movement group of the early twentieth century was the League of Women Shoppers, founded in 1935. Though it resembled the NCL in the demographics of its members and its politics, the LWS was focused on protecting and expanding collective bargaining rights. It began in New York, when the patrons of a local department store met to discuss how they could support a strike by the store’s workers. The LWS grew to have fourteen chapters across the United States by 1939, and many of its members helped staff or administer New Deal programs.

Other important voluntary consumer associations of the era included the Consumers Union and the Consumers’ National Federation (which later became the National Association of Consumers). All these groups found their base among middle- and upper-middle-class women, and they all sought to forge a “labor-consumer political alliance” to achieve sweeping social reform.

The Program of the Consumer Movement and the Labor-Consumer Alliance

The consumer movement saw the interests of consumers and workers as inextricably linked, and maintained that those interests were best served by building up the labor movement and bringing more aspects of economic life under democratic control. The ethical role of the consumer, in this view, was not just to buy from “good” companies and boycott “bad” ones but to take collective action to reorder the capitalist system. The consumer movement was a crucial part of the New Deal coalition’s left wing.

Though the movement was ideologically diverse — including left-liberals, social democrats, socialists, and Communists — its central campaigns in the Depression and WWII eras reflected some common ideas. One of these ideas was an essentially Keynesian “underconsumptionist” analysis of the Great Depression’s causes. In this view, ordinary consumers’ incomes had become too low, so that overall demand failed to match the supply of consumer goods; as a result, businesses were unable to sell their products and turn an adequate profit, causing a downward spiral into economic collapse.

The way out of the Depression, and the way to prevent similar crises in the future, was to use government policy to raise the “purchasing power” of the masses. The government could do this, first, by raising workers’ wages, including helping workers fight to raise their own wages by recognizing their right to unionize. After all, most consumers are also workers, or depend on the incomes of parents or spouses who are. Second, the government could boost incomes and purchasing power through public assistance and social insurance programs. Third, the state could use price controls and other regulatory mechanisms to ensure that an adequate supply of quality goods was provided at reasonable prices. (Consumer activists played a key role in the wartime Office of Price Administration, which regulated prices for and rationed many goods.)

The combined effect of these policies would be to redistribute wealth from corporations and the rich to the less affluent, alleviating poverty and promoting social equality — goals that the consumer movement considered both morally desirable in their own right and necessary for ensuring economic and political stability. The policies were also crucial, consumer activists believed, for tackling racial and gender hierarchies, since working-class women and minorities were most likely to suffer from low pay and lack of labor protections.

The radical elements of the consumer movement, including socialists like NCL leader Dublin, saw this economic program as a step on the way to a more fundamental transformation of society, which would ultimately do away with private ownership of property entirely. Others thought of these policies merely as necessary for producing a more humane and democratic capitalism. Regardless of these differences, the movement was united by the idea that the Depression called for sweeping economic change — change that workers, volunteer activists, and the state all had roles to play in bringing about.

Consumer activists saw the labor movement as essential to this program, not simply as the beneficiaries of the pro-worker policies that consumer groups advocated but as key protagonists in the fight for social justice. That’s why groups like the NCL and the LWS didn’t just try to pass minimum wage laws or other labor protections but also pushed for collective bargaining rights and supported worker efforts to unionize. “In the 1930s NCL leaders themselves believed that working-class organization was the best means to improved labor standards,” Storrs writes. “However, most workers were not organized. League activists thought their program would offer immediate relief to the unorganized and also make it easier for them to form unions.”

The Legacy of the Consumer Movement

The New Deal probably represented the height of the consumer movement’s influence. It began to wane in size and significance for a few reasons. Two especially important ones were, first, that the rise of organized labor and federal agencies charged with labor regulation eclipsed the influence of voluntary associations in setting the policy agenda. Second, its activists and policy goals were the targets of vicious red-baiting beginning in the 1930s, which only intensified with the McCarthyite witch hunts of the early Cold War period. (There were gendered dimensions to these developments, Storrs argues: union leaders and federal policymakers were more likely to be men, and the Second Red Scare disproportionately targeted ambitious left-leaning women like Mary Dublin.)

The NCL survived and is still around today. However, it no longer pushes for a far-reaching worker-led restructuring of the economy, but instead focuses on the more modest goals of consumer education and enforcing existing labor and safety regulations. To that extent, the NCL’s narrowing of ambitions reflects a shrinking of the ideal of ethical consumerism in the broader culture, in line with the idea that it is about catching “bad apples” among businesses and helping individual consumers make good choices.

Capitalist ideology pushes us to think of ourselves as consumers rather than workers and even to understand our interests as consumers as being opposed to the interests of workers. Higher wages or more protections for workers, conservative politicians and pundits argue, means higher prices or lower quality for consumers; ethical consumer choices, like reducing our “carbon footprints,” many liberals tell us, means forsaking workers in the fossil fuel industry.

It is to the lasting credit of the New Deal consumer movement that they rejected this false framework and imagined an economy that worked better for all ordinary people, an economy that could only be realized if workers were empowered to fight for themselves. We would do well to recover this forgotten tradition of ethical consumption.