As the volume and choice of all sorts of personal and household goods grew, so did public interest in their quality, performance and descriptions. There was a general public demand for simple and informative guidelines for identifying satisfactory products that were genuine, reliable, good value and safe to use.
Good Housekeeping Institute
In the early days consumers might have relied on the manufacturer’s trademark as an indication of a product’s quality. From 1924 The Good Housekeeping Institute’s product testing facilities in London awarded test certificates and later ‘seals of approval’ to the best products of manufacturers. But this was unsustainable when large choices of products appeared on the market after the War.
Quality marks and the Consumer Advisory Council
The wartime Utility mark was superseded on some household goods by the British Standards Institute’s Kitemark, denoting conformity to a published Standard. But the Kitemark was only a voluntary mark and little known to most of the public. The BSI seemed reluctant to provide product information directly to the public. But mounting pressure from housewives prompted the BSI to appoint a Women’s Advisory Committee (WAC) in 1951, to effect collaboration between consumer, manufacturer and retailer. This became the more powerful Advisory Council on Standards for Consumer Goods (ACSCG), later known as the Consumer Advisory Council (CAC). From 1957 it published Shopper's Guide, a review of independent test results on consumer goods based on published British Standards. By 1958 there were over 160 of these standards, including standards for wash basins and toilets, taps, electric blankets, cookers and fires.
American, Swedish and German progress in consumer affairswas matched in Britain with the launch in 1957 of Which? magazine, the mouthpiece of the Association for Consumer Research, soon renamed the Consumer’s Association. Which? magazine was an immediate hit with the public because it tested and reported on popular products, clearly stating the best buys. It was independent and authoritative, attracting 84,000 members in the first year, rising to 600,000 by 1969 with members joining at the rate of 2,000 a week.
Which? filled the void between the obscurity of the BSI Kitemark (and the associated confusion over what a British Standard actually meant) and the Council of Industrial Design’s rarefied Design Index of products claiming aesthetic ‘good taste’, but nothing about performance, reliability, or value for money.
The Consumer Advisory Council (CAC) was disbanded in 1963 following criticism from the landmark Molony Report on Consumer Protection (1962). It was replaced by a new national Consumer Council which established more rigorous consumer standards such as the Teltag scheme providing consumers with informative labelling of goods’ performance and suitability, based wherever possible on British Standards.
Protective legislation for the consumer increased during the 1960s, the most important example being the 1968 Trades Descriptions Act. Public interest in consumer affairs grew rapidly, in tandem with official changes. In the early 1960s the BBC programme Choice, introduced by Richard Dimbleby and based on the CA’s Which? reports, had a viewing audience of about three million.
Making consumers matter
In this era of rapidly evolving commercialism with the ever-increasing range of goods and services on the market, the consumer was now better equipped against the deceptions and pitfalls of unscrupulous manufacturers. The National Consumer Council developed through the 1970s into a powerful body. It safeguarded the interests of all consumers by developing policy solutions and representing the consumers’ viewpoint at a national decision-making level.
Consumer power was considerably enhanced through influential pressure groups and consumer watchdogs. For example the ‘real ale’ campaigns were among the first successful manifestations of consumer power in Britain and actually saved traditional British brewing techniques.