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Buying Power

In between lecturing, glowering at undergraduates, marking, marking some more, doing research, and marking, I help out with the Right2Know Campaign. Launched about a year ago, Right2Know represents a coalition of individuals, civil society organisations, and community groups who are concerned about the Protection of State Information Bill.

We believe that the Secrecy Bill – as R2K prefers to call it – will undermine all South Africans’ right to access government information, something which is guaranteed by Section 32 of our Bill of Rights. The Secrecy Bill will allow government officials in any ‘organ of state’ – an unpleasant image – or, in other words, any department, parastatal, agency, or institution which is associated with the state, to classify information deemed to be sensitive and potentially threatening to national security. In effect, this means that the Natal Shark Board, the Algoa Bus Company, and even the Johannesburg Zoo would be able to classify information.

Also, the Bill doesn’t include a public interest clause, and the penalties which it seeks to introduce for the leaking of classified information are ludicrously high. Whistle blowers face up to twenty-five years imprisonment. I don’t object to legislation which controls access to potentially dangerous information – like the plans for Koeberg or Pollsmoor – but Right2Know is deeply concerned that this Bill will make secrecy, rather than openness, the default position within government. This Bill will have a chilling effect on the media, but it’ll also impact on ordinary people’s ability to hold the state to account.

The campaign has had a significant impact on this piece of legislation. The Bill as it stands now isn’t nearly as draconian as its earliest incarnation last year, and the ANC has now withdrawn the Bill from Parliament altogether. (We do worry, though, about the process of ‘public consultation’ which the ANC is about to begin.)

But I think that our greatest achievement has been mobilising popular opinion against a law the implications of which are not immediately obvious. We’ve managed to get people to march against the Bill, and to pack public information sessions and community meetings. I think that this is partly because the campaign has been fairly successful in causing the ruling party to change its mind. Right2Know has shown how the gathering of ordinary people in large numbers around a particular cause can make a difference.

Although the Occupy movement shows that when people feel strongly enough about an issue, they’ll take part in protests even if they know that the chances of success are pretty slim, it’s still difficult to counter criticism that there’s no point to being politically engaged because effecting change is really difficult. I think that it’s partly for this reason that so many campaigning organisations turn to consumer activism as a way of encouraging people to take action on particular issues: it’s easier to shift buying habits in the name of a cause and it requires less commitment than other forms of protest. Also, it’s proven to be relatively successful. Consumer activism hits companies where it hurts: their profits. Last year’s Greenpeace campaign to persuade Nestle not to use rainforest products caused the food giant to announce that it would not engage in ecologically harmful practises in Indonesia.

Consumer activism around food has existed for as long as the idea of the consumer – rather than the customer. I’ve written before about the link between the rise of the American food industry and its increasing use of advertising to promote branded products during the late nineteenth century, and the construction of ‘consumers’. Customers bought oats from the grocer’s bin because they ate porridge for breakfast. Consumers chose Quaker Oats from a range of other brands because they identified with the values associated with that particular product.

One of the effects of the industrialisation of food production – indeed, of the food chain – was a heightened incidence of food adulteration. We know that for centuries shopkeepers and grocers added bulk to make their products to make them go further: adding ground up chalk to flour, water to milk or vinegar, sand to sugar, and dried leaves to tea. The difference was that as more food was produced in factories and it became more difficult to monitor this production, the adulteration of food occurred on a mass scale. In both Britain and the United States, concern about the purity of food grew over the course of the nineteenth century, and with very good reason.

In 1820, Frederick Accum, a German chemist living in London, published A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons in which he detailed the extent to which British food producers used harmful – and even potentially deadly – substances to increase the volume and weight of their products, and also improve their appearance. Lead, copper, and mercury salts were used to make adulterated tea and coffee darker, bread whiter, and sweets and jellies more colourful. Thirty years later – and after Accum had fled back to Germany after the furore caused by his book – another group of British scientists found that adulteration was the norm, rather than the exception, in food manufacturing.

One of these, Arthur Hill Hassall, worked as the chief analyst for the gloriously-titled Analytical Sanitary Commission, and he went to work methodically analysing the composition of a range of medicines and manufactured food products. Between 1851 and 1854, Hassall identified alum in bread, and iron, lead and mercury compounds in cayenne pepper, copper salts in bottled fruit and pickles, and Venetian red in sauces, potted meats, and fish. He published his findings in The Lancet, and the public outcry that resulted from his work was partly behind the passing of the first Food Adulteration Act in 1860.

In Britain, efforts to curb the adulteration of food were driven largely by scientists and politicians. Consumer outrage was important in that it encouraged food producers to comply with new regulations around additives, but this was not a consumer-driven campaign. It was, though, in the United States, where the pure food movement was the first manifestation of consumer activism on a national scale. The size, influence, and political clout of the American food industry needed a concerted challenge in order to change.

Americans had been aware of a drop in the quality of manufactured food since the middle of the nineteenth century – and understood that this was connected to the fact that food was being processed in factories. As one popular rhyme put it:

Mary had a little lamb, / And when she saw it sicken, / She shipped it off to Packingtown, / And now it’s labelled chicken.

The first people to mobilise against food adulteration were middle-class women in the 1870s. Well-off and well-educated white American women were involved in a range of philanthropic and reform movements during the final decades of the nineteenth century – a period known as the Progressive Era in American historiography. The global temperance movement – which campaigned for the tighter regulation of alcohol sales – was run almost entirely by middle-class ladies who justified their engagement with politics on the grounds that this was an issue relevant mainly to women – and particularly poor women. Similarly, American women agitated for the regulation of the food industry because supplying households with food was the concern of diligent wives and mothers. Even if many women involved with the temperance and other movements eventually became active in women’s franchise organisations, these campaigns were politically and, to some extent, socially, conservative. They were also locally driven, and emerged out of existing social clubs, improvement societies, and charities.

As in Britain, studies carried out by health boards and medical societies found that the contamination of processed food was rife: flour contained ground rice, plaster of paris, grits, and sand; bread contained copper sulphate and ashes; butter contained copper; cheese contained mercury salts; and lard contained caustic lime, and alum. Cayenne pepper was adulterated with red lead and iron oxide; mustard with lead chromate and lime sulphate; and vinegar with sulphuric, hydrochloric, and pyroligneous acids, and burnt sugar. Nice.

These campaigns were grounded in a belief that the food producers had become so powerful that the American government needed to step in to protect consumers from them. Even if several states did enact food purity legislation, it became clear that the food industry needed to be regulated on a national industry, and a campaign led by the Ladies’ Home Journal and Colliers’ and supported by home economists and others argued for the introduction of a federal law, similar to that in the UK.

Surprisingly, food companies were in favour of this legislation. Not only would it simplify the increasingly complex and contradictory rules operating in different states, but they lobbied the American government to write a law which suited their business interests. In fact, Heinz and other organisations actually benefitted from the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: they advertised their products – which Heinz sold in clear glass bottles to demonstrate their purity – as being the safer, healthier, and purer alternative to the unbranded products sold by small, local grocers. Heinz, regulated by the American government, was the wholesome choice.

I don’t want to detract from the achievement of the pure food campaigners, but, ironically, their efforts to curb the excesses of the American food industry actually had the effect of strengthening these big processors. So I think that this example of consumer activism is instructive. It’s certainly true that as consumers our ability to withhold or redirect our buying power can cause change, and we should exploit this. But this only works in times of plenty. We’ve seen how sales of organic produce have dropped globally during the recession. Eating ethically is an expensive business.

More importantly, though, consumer activism doesn’t cause us to question the fact that we act – and are seen by our governments – primarily as consumers, rather than citizens. Secondly, it doesn’t interrogate why buying things is believed to be so important: it doesn’t consider consumerism itself. There is mounting evidence to indicate that rampant consumerism does not make for happy societies, and that we need to buy and waste less for the good of our planet.

I was struck recently by a comment made by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor wear range Patagonia, in an interview with The Ecologist: ‘There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.’ Consumer activism can only go so far in causing change. We need to question consumerism itself.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914 (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1999).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Susan Strasser, Customer to Consumer: The New Consumption in the Progressive Era,’ OAH Magazine of History, vol. 13, no. 3, The Progressive Era (Spring, 1999), pp. 10-14.

Other sources:

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Roger Horowitz, Meat in America: Technology, Taste, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

Nancy F. Koehn, ‘Henry Heinz and Brand Creation in the Late Nineteenth Century: Making Markets for Processed Food,’ The Business History Review, vol. 73, no. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 349-393.

Peter N. Stearns, ‘Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodisation,’ The Journal of Modern History, vol. 69, no. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 102-117.

Susan Strasser, ‘Making Consumption Conspicuous: Transgressive Topics Go Mainstream,’ Technology and Culture, vol. 43, no. 4, Kitchen Technologies (Oct., 2002), pp. 755-770.

Frank Trentmann, ‘Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 373-401.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teatrayinthesky #

    Enjoyed reading this immensely – whilst not being able to comment on the economics of consumerism through lack of knowledge and also not suggesting that Sumptuary law is ever the way to go, I do agree that we need to investigate/question consumerism… this report is a small indicator of its complexity, I think.

    http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publications/UNICEFIpsosMori_childwellbeing_reportsummary.pdf

    October 18, 2011
    • Oooh – thank you! That’s really, really useful. I don’t know if tax or a sumptuary law IS the way to go, but changing attitudes is also so damn difficult.

      October 18, 2011

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