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Implementing the Consumer

Caroline F. Ware

February 1934

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IN the knitted outerwear code, a clause calling for accurate labeling was introduced at the suggestion of the consumer representative. Hawkeyed, the representative watched the clause through successive stages, doing battle for it in both private and public hearings. In the middle of the process, half of the clause was dropped. In the next to last stage, the bulk of it disappeared, leaving only a labeling requirement which applied to silk. Since the majority of the industry uses wool and rayon, it looks as if the stronger interests in the industry had made sacrificial victims of those who use silk. Before the code finally went to the President, even the part which applied to silk had been removed. In the drycleaning code, a provision that standards should be developed was included. But when the code was put into operation, the price-fixing provision was carried out before the standards had been set to which the fixed prices were to apply.

Provision of standards for quality, however, is patently indispensable to an adequate code of fair competition, for competition in quality can be quite as unfair as the pricecutting and wage-cutting that have been the principal targets of code provisions. Insofar as the consumer is bne of the parties toward whom fairness is as necessary as toward labor and business, protection against unfair competition in quality is his prime requirement. That the consumer is such a party has been assumed in the creation of a Consumers' Advisory Board under NRA corresponding to the Labor and Industrial Advisory Boards. It would be a mockery indeed if a great national effort to introduce "fairness" into industry should overlook this consumer for whom the whole industrial process is presumably operated. In recognition of the absence of protection against unfair quality competition in the codes as hitherto drawn, General Johnson stated to the press on December 17, "I think there should be more definite standards set."

The consumer's gain is industry's gain as well. The saving possible through better methods of distribution has been long realized. In 1922, Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, stated in his annual report, "The lack of . . . established grades and standards of quality adds very largely to the cost of distribution because of the necessity of buying and selling upon sample or othcrwise, and because of the risk of fraud and misrepresentation and consequently the larger margins of trading." By lessening the "returned-goods evil" as well as by eliminating unfair quality competition, reasonable business as well as the consumer has everything to gain.

BUT the tradition of producer-mindedness stands in the way of the consumer's approach involved in the use of quality labeling. The necessity for consumer pressure to develop standards and their adoption by industry has become urgent in the shift toward a consumer approach to the economic process. At three points the opportunity for pressure presents itself, in respect to law, the inclusion of requirements for standards in codes and marketing agreements, and the pressure upon retailers by direct consumer demand in the course of their purchasing. Where health is menaced or fraud is perpetrated, both federal and state law may step in, as has been the case in respect to food and drug legislation. Some states have passed laws calling for the use of quality grades. California has provided grades for olives, Texas for citrus fruits.

Wherever state or federal legislation is proposed, consumer pressure for the passage of such measures can contribute toward their passage. In respect to the codes and marketing agreements under NRA and AAA, the efforts of consumer representatives have already been described. Any move by organized consumer interests to hold up the hands of the official consumer representatives will contribute toward industry's adoption of labeling according to grade and standard as a common trade practice. Wherever grades are available for use but infrequently employed, the most effective way to get them into use is likely to be by way of the direct demand by purchasers in stores.

But the fact remains that few standards are available to form the basis for accurate labeling of most industrial products. In an attempt to remedy this situation, the consumer agencies of the AAA and the NRA have recommended the setting up of a Consumer Standards Board to enlarge the area where standards are available, to gather together and formulate, for commodities in general use, the qualities which consumers want, e.g., wear, pliability, and so on for children's shoes; elasticity, wear on toe and heel for silk stockings; mileage performance and combustion of gasoline ăto secure laboratory tests upon the basis of which standards can be drawn, and to formulate standards either in terms of specifications or performance. If there is suflficient pressure so that the board is set up, its work, necessarily slow and painstaking because of its technical character, will lead importantly toward a consumer-oriented economy.

If we are content to make things just for the sake of making them, to make shoes for the sake of shoes, or gasoline for the sake of gasoline, we need not be unduly concerned with quality. If we are content to earn simply for the sake of earning, with no regard to the spending of our earnings, we may think we can be relatively indifferent to quality standards. But if we are firm in our insistence that the only purpose of making things is that we may consume them, and the only use of our earnings is that we may spend them for what we want, we cannot escape the conclusion that knowledge of quality is indispensable to us. We have often been told that we have moved from an economy of scarcity to an economy of plenty. Our grand parents, confronted with scarcity, learned by shrewd knowledge and ingenuity to make the most of the few things that were available. In the face of abundance, neither our pocketbooks, nor our concern for the effective operation of the economic process, nor yet our self-respect can longer permit us the cost and the indignity of continued ignorance.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003