Often the free market anarchist response to dealing with business misconduct includes the ability for workers to find a new job, consumers to buy a new product, etc. The more fleshed out version of this ideal includes wildcat unionism, mass boycotts, pickets, and demonstrations. And yes, workers should absolutely be able to use collective bargaining tactics to fight for better working conditions just as consumers should be able to engage in mass boycott campaigns to address their own concerns. But workers, employed in the same workplace, can more easily communicate with one another, and can utilize the union structure to communicate and achieve their goals; consumers do not have the same benefits.
Sure, grassroots consumer boycott movements have sprung up such as the March Against Monsanto and others. Consumers will also often show their support for union campaigns by participating in complimentary boycotts such as with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ ongoing boycott against Wendy’s and the recent Amazon and Uber/Lyft strikes/boycotts but this again benefits from the resources available to the workers organizing the campaigns in the first place. So how do consumers organize themselves? What’s the missing piece to this puzzle?
Consumer advocacy groups seek to protect people from corporate abuse like unsafe products, predatory lending, false advertising, astroturfing, and pollution. Consumer advocacy groups may operate via protests, litigation, campaigning, or lobbying. They can engage in single-issue advocacy (e.g. Right to Repair, which campaigns for the right of consumers to repair the products they own without corporate interference or barriers) or they may set themselves up as more general consumer watchdogs, such as the Consumer Reports or Public Citizen.
The roots of consumer advocacy groups can be traced back to two precursor organizations: standards organizations and consumers leagues, both of which appeared in the United States in the early 1900s. Trade associations and professional societies established standards organizations to reduce industry waste and increase productivity. Consumer leagues modeled themselves after trade unions in their attempts to improve the market with boycotts in the same way that unions sought to improve working conditions with strike actions.
Consumer advocacy groups can range from the more legislative-focused to the more market-focused. The more market-focused groups such as Consumer Reports provide members with independent product tests, professional reviews, crowdsourced personal consumer experiences, the ability to comparison shop to find the highest quality products, updates on strikes, boycotts, and legal actions, and more. This allows consumers to share their experiences, avoid shitty products and businesses with bad labor practices, and coordinate mass actions in response to business misconduct.
Consumer advocacy groups, along with apps such as Buycott, wildcat labor unions, alt labor organizations, and private certification groups, all offer us realistic ways to stop businesses from abusing workers, consumers, the environment, and the surrounding communities. We must actively dispel the idea that the free market would allow businesses to run free without any checks or balances. Instead we must prove that the market can be the best regulator of all by promoting and expanding these types of resources and organizations in the here and now. Without the state, it’s up to us.