Consumerism with a shrunken vision: David Nicholson-Lord looks at Which? magazine and finds its philosophy marooned in the Sixties

Click to follow
THERE is a curiously old-fashioned air about Which? sometimes. Reading the current issue, with its product tests on paint strippers, its expose of car-boot sales, its tales of rip-offs and refunds, is a little like journeying backwards in time to the Sixties, when the affluent society was in its youth, the world was filling up with new products, and buyers who did not beware came unstuck.

In the first Which? in 1957 there were problems with kettles. In 1994 there are agonising decisions on hair removers (Creams or waxes? Razors or electrolyis?) and cautionary tales of conservatories ('The path to the extra room of your dreams is paved with pitfalls.') There is also the unmistakable sense of something missing.

If Which? and the Consumers' Association did not exist, they would have to be invented. Lord Young of Dartington, who founded the association, is one of the great social innovators of modern times and Which?, after its early success in getting manufacturers to alter the design of their kettles, has developed into an formidable research organisation and a powerful voice for the consumer. We would all be much the poorer without it. The consumer, however, has changed. And so, since the heady days of Supermac and Suez, has his world.

One would scarcely guess from the current issue of Holiday Which? that an intensive debate is now taking place about the global impact - always dramatic, often destructive - of tourism. There are jaunty pieces about southern Italy, the French Alps, the Western Isles. There is a run-down on Athens, too - a city 'notorious for its congestion and pollution', according to the magazine, but whose classical sights 'make it unmissable'. (Well, that's all right, then.)

The disappearing ozone layer gets a brief mention in Which? - there are tests on fridges which do not use ozone-depleting CFCs - but the green dimension is otherwise noticeable for its absence. So too is 'fair trade' - the idea that our purchasing decisions in the UK often have a damaging, albeit 'invisible', impact on the lives of people in the Third World.

The association will no doubt say that it has covered these issues, and so it has, to a degree. But it does not take to them: there is what the Americans would call an attitude problem.

Earlier this month it gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on the environment, currently investigating out-of- town shopping centres, and came very close to saying that planners should stop interfering with retail location decisions and consumers should be allowed to drive their cars wherever they want: 'The consumer interest will be best served by ensuring that planning policy does not deny access to particular types of retail environment.' What of the threat to town centres? What of the risk of global warming from increased car-related emissions of carbon dioxide?

Yet this is a form of institutional myopia that affects much of the 'old guard' consumer lobby. The National Consumer Council, for example, founded in 1975, was forthright last year in its support for the latest, Uruguay, round of the Gatt negotiations - free trade, it argued, would mean more choice and lower prices. But low prices in the West usually mean sweatshops and starvation wages in the Third World.

And what about the absurd distances travelled by food - 2,000 kilometres from field to plate on the typical American table - and the vast energy costs involved? Do we need more 'choice' in the West? Many would argue that 16,000 products - as in a typical superstore - are enough, that it would be better to have fewer products that lasted longer. Even the Consumers' Association's own poll, submitted in evidence to the environment committee, found that 68 per cent of the public think there are already enough shops.

What lies behind such faith in the market? According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, there have been three waves of consumerism: the first emphasising value for money, information and labelling; the second associated with Ralph Nader, the American consumer champion, stressing investigative anti-corporate work; the third broadening out into global issues.

Professor Lang calls this third phase - the so-called New Consumerism of the Eighties - a 'marriage of environmentalism and citizenship' and it has seen not only the rise

of green consumerism but growing links

between groups concerned with food, health, aid, the environment and the Third World. Perhaps its most notable feature, however,

is its questioning of the entire philosophy of


The consumer establishment, headquartered in the first phase and making sporadic incursions into the second, has trodden lightly, at times invisibly, around such sensitive third-wave areas. In part, this is a political response - the NCC is government- funded, the Consumers' Association has a million members who take their consumption seriously. But it is also a question of philosophy.

Since the beginnings of industrialism, critics from both left and right have lamented its fragmenting effects on human identity. Factory workers became 'hands', production was divided from consumption, specialisations proliferated.

'Specialised' consumerism has proved a vital counterweight to producer power, but it has also propagated a shrunken view of the individual as a buying unit, a foot-soldier in the onward march of affluence. Socially and environmentally, the costs of that affluence look increasingly high. Consumers, and consumerism, need to broaden their horizons.