Brief Enquiries

When Did Consumers Discover Their Power, Mr Trentmann?

Ever more people are making conscious purchasing decisions in order to drive changes in society, such as buying organic goods from exemplary retailers. A new consumer awareness? “Not at all,” says historian Frank Trentmann. “Consumers were already wielding their power in a very similar way over a hundred years ago.”

  • By Jan Berndorff
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Professor Dr Frank Trentmann from the University of London, United Kingdom, is a Humboldt Research Award Winner at the University of Konstanz.

Frank Trentmann
Frank Trentmann

Trentmann spent years researching for his book on the history of consumption “Empire of Things”. It was at the end of the 19th century that things got political, it reveals. Citizens started to identify themselves as consumers; discovered that they can influence the market and bear responsibility for the common good. “In the cities of Europe and America, citizens got together in consumers’ leagues and co-ops, and launched campaigns,” says Trentmann. “Their motto was: living is buying, buying is power, power is responsibility.” They drew up blacklists, for example, of companies that exploited their workforce. In the 1970s, however, it became widely accepted that the market and competition guaranteed consumer interests best – not organised consumer councils. But up to then, consumers had largely focused on domestic producers; it was only later that the conditions in distant countries sparked people’s interest. Although today’s consumers are rediscovering their power, “it’s limited,” says Trentmann. “Politics and business are powerful, too. Only if they do their bit, if the topic of consumption is given greater weight in education, and financial incentives and new structures for a different way of life are created, will we succeed in making the transition to a sustainable consumer society.”

News from the Humboldt Foundation 

published in Humboldt Kosmos 109/2018

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