It’s hard to envision the U.S. without the consumer protections we all take for granted today.
But those days are not that far in the past.
While certain standards of measure were established in the early days of the U.S., more advanced consumer protections were slow in coming and continue to evolve to this day.
It’s a Jungle Out There
Standardized units of measure established in the U.S. during the late 18th century were among the first laws designed to protect consumers, but little else was done to establish consumer protections for decades after, However, a book published in 1906 opened the eyes of consumers and set in motion efforts to protect the public from unscrupulous businesses.
That book, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, documented the brutal working conditions workers in Chicago’s meat packing plants endured. The novel – which Sinclair researched by working for months in those plants – also gave the public a close up look at the filthy state of the city’s meat packing plants. Sinclair’s novel was disturbing at best and sickening at worst. “The Jungle” made a large and immediate impact in the U.S. as the general public had never been exposed to what was going on in the meat packing industry.
Elected officials were also disgusted by the novel’s revelations, which resulted in an investigation by the federal government, followed by swift legislative action by Congress. This legislation included the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both signed into law in late 1906. The Federal Meat Inspection Act established strict standards ensuring meats were cut and packed in sanitary conditions. The Pure Food and Drug Act sought to eliminate the production or distribution of mislabeled or adulterated food products and medications.
These laws launched a storm of more than 100 new consumer protection laws over the next 25 years and led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration as we know it today.
They also marked a new commitment by government entities venturing into consumer protection law which benefits all of us to this day.
Consumer Protections Ramp Up
The rush of new consumer protection laws in the early 20th Century paved the way for a great expansion of those protections by the middle of the century.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy spearheaded a movement aimed at increased consumer protections, and urged Congress to act on behalf of U.S. consumers.
One result of this was the “Consumer Bill of Rights.” The bill of rights established:
A Right to Safety
This established a legal right to protection against products that caused or will cause physical harm. While it did not cover automobiles, it covered nearly all other products. This right was officially enacted in 1972 and is enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which establishes product safety standards, testing regulations, and warning labels addressing consumer rights.
A Right to Information
This established a consumer’s right to accurate information about products and services, and mandated that information be visible on packaging and in advertising. Businesses must also fully disclose any past problems with their products or services.
Right to Make Choices
This is the establishment and/or reaffirmation of the rights of fair commerce which limit underselling, price gouging, patent ownership, monopolies, and anti-trust regulation.
Right to Be Heard
This gives consumers the right to make complaints and express concerns regarding products and services. The U.S. Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) each provide avenues through which consumers can represent only a few of the platforms in which consumers may be heard.
Progress Over the Decades
Expansion of federal consumer protection laws has continued. Looking back from a 2021 perspective, the past decades have seen the establishment of more than a dozen important and familiar federal laws, which we may take for granted:
The Truth in Lending Act (1968)
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (1970)
The Fair Credit Billing Act (1975)
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (1978)
The Credit Practices Rule (1985)
The Fair Credit and Charge Card Disclosure Act (1989)
The Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act (1996)
The Credit Repair Organizations Act (1996)
Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (2003)
Credit Card Act (2009)
Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (2011)
State Consumer Protection Laws
The above is just the federal part of the story. Beginning in the 1970s, states including Missouri and Illinois, got into the act. That’s a tale for another day.
Know Your Rights
It’s important for every consumer to understand that extensive legal protections for consumers are readily available in the U.S., and those protections continue to grow.
But the best legal protections are useless if consumers fail to use them. If you feel you have been unfairly treated by a business, contact the Law Office of Richard S. Cornfeld for a complimentary evaluation of your case.