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Buyer Beware: A Brief Look at Consumer Protection in the U.S.

In America, we are all consumers. That’s true whether we’re buying essentials – such as food, clothing, electricity, healthcare – or luxury items – such as fashion accessories, boats and electronic devices. As consumers, we take for granted the fact that the goods we buy are covered by warranties, or that we typically have the law on our side if we buy a product that causes us harm. But that has not always been the case in our country.

In fact, for much of our nation’s history, we were pretty much on our own when we purchased a faulty product. “Buyer beware” was the default mode of operation for American consumers, and it was only after decades of legislative action that we started to enjoy a barrier of protection from the sellers of hazardous products. These laws often came as a reaction to consumer crises, public demand and successful efforts of consumer advocates.

Important Moments in American Consumer Protection

  • In 1906, Americans were first exposed to the horrors of the meatpacking industry after they read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair wrote about the use of disease-ridden, contaminated and rotten meat sold to consumers, a message which greatly impacted meat sales and prompted government action. The public outcry resulted in the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. These laws eventually gave way to the Food and Drug Administration a few decades later.
  • One of the most important agencies for consumer protection came only a few years later in 1914, with the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC was intended to keep monopolies from dominating a sector of business in the U.S., but it is also one of the chief overseers of consumer safety and protection. The creation of the FTC also led to the Bureau of Consumer Protection. Together, these agencies are key to stopping identity theft, false advertising and consumer privacy.
  • It wasn’t until 1962 that President John F. Kennedy promoted what would later be referred to as a Consumer Bill of Rights in a speech to congress. These rights included the right to be informed, the right to safety, the right to choose and the right to be heard.
  • Also in the 1960s, automobile safety became a central focus of our government’s ability to regulate vehicle manufacturers. A series of vehicle safety-related scandals were brought to light, in part by consumer advocate and attorney Ralph Nader. Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile was a major influence on consumers and legislators alike, and it helped persuade lawmakers to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. The legislative activity in the 1960s eventually led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Other agencies, such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection also have a hand in protecting the rights of buyers and the restrictions placed on companies and creditors from treating consumers unfairly. Collectively, these and other agencies are central to our government’s approach to making consumers safe from harmful products.

Consumer Safety Today

The key take-away from this brief summary of important laws and moments in the history of American consumer protection is that the fight to stand up for consumers is an ongoing one. It is often only after significant abuses have been committed that public demand warrants action from our lawmakers.

The other important lesson is that these laws and protections provide an avenue for consumers to act, but they do not always prevent faulty, defective or harmful products from reaching consumers. They deter manufacturers from making harmful products, but as we have seen repeatedly over the last several years (think faulty airbags or exploding lithium-ion batteries), consumers are still vulnerable to the damage caused by negligent manufacturers.

These laws are vital to consumer protection, but they represent only a fraction of the progress that we should expect as consumers. As technology continues to shape and inform the development of products we use, the fight for consumer safety will become even more important.