Abstract: Cooperation and Organized Consumerism in Great Britain, 1900-2000

Matthew Hilton


This paper examines the history of the British consumer co-operative movement from the late nineteenth century to the present, focusing particularly on the relationship between co-operation and broader politicizations of the consumer. It explores the nature of consumer co-operative thought and how this has located the co-operative society within a model of consumer citizenship. It assesses the extent to which this influenced and situated itself within other expressions of the consumer interest, be it through state-sponsored consumer councils or the growth of private, comparative-testing consumer organizations, notably the Consumers' Association in the post-Second World War period. The clearest division in the history of co-operation and consumer politics relates to the type of goods being discussed. Broadly, the co-operative movement grew as a retail enterprise through the provision of basic necessities in the first half of the twentieth century. At this point, co-operation held a close if fraught relationship with other bodies representing consumer interest, particularly in the trade union movement and the Labour Party (though this is not to say that working-class consumer interests were given a voice in official institutional settings). The second broad category of goods are those associated with the affluent economy from the 1950s. At this point, other consumer organizations emerged that offered a new type of consumer politics based on information, advice, and rational decision-making, as an expanding middle-class negotiated its way through an increasingly technological marketplace. While the Consumers' Association deliberately distanced itself from the Co-operative movement, co-operators themselves increasingly had less to say in an age of affluence rather than necessity. Other historians have charted and explained the decline of co-operation, though its inability to articulate a politics of affluent consumption also played a role in its arguably increasing irrelevance to the period 1950 to 1990. In recent years, however, the growth of ethical consumerism has revitalized co-operation and the movement has been at the forefront of this new consumer trend/politicization.