The Australasian Consumers’ Association was formed in 1959, at the end of a decade that had seen an increasing focus on the acquisition of material goods. It was led by Ruby Hutchison, a Western Australian parliamentarian and Roland Thorp, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Sydney. The Association was formed at a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall in September 1959 and the first issue of CHOICE, the Association’s magazine, appeared in April of the following year.
An article in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1960 called the Association a “Watchdog for housewives”. It reported that the organisation was initially operated entirely by volunteers but was soon able to employ a full-time manager and move to permanent premises in Sydney. All the product testing was done gratis by engineers, scientists and doctors until the Association could set up its own laboratory.
In 1963, the organisation changed its name to the Australian Consumers’ Association. The organisation now calls itself CHOICE (always in capital letters) and describes itself as:
… the public face of the Australian Consumers’ Association, a nonprofit company limited by guarantee. We operate under a constitution, with an independent, skills-based Board that is responsible for the governance of the company
The aim of CHOICE magazine was to review and test various categories of consumer goods and provide independent advice to members of the Association. The first issue reviewed aspirin tablets, frozen foods, slimming programs, shampoos and something known as “mighty size”. From 500 copies for the first issue, the circulation grew to more than 100,000 ten years later. The magazine is now also online, and in 2020 was serving a membership of more than 185,000.
The Association has played an important role in lobbying for legislation to protect consumers. They say:
…in the 1970s, we played an important role in the drafting of the Trade Practices Act, Australia’s first national consumer protection law. Almost 40 years later we also campaigned for the introduction of the Australian Consumer Law, which guarantees the consumer rights we all enjoy today.
Although the full reviews are only available to members, CHOICE often speaks out to the wider public on specific issues. As early as 1962, the Association advocated better standards for packaged goods, highlighting the need for clearer display of weights and measures and condemning the practice of packaging products in odd sizes to make price comparisons difficult. More recently, the organisation has been a strong supporter of the health star rating system on foods and has been instrumental in getting such ratings changed for foods such as MILO which, it claimed, were falsely using high star ratings. Each year, the magazine publishes its SHONKY awards, outing manufacturers that make misleading claims for their goods.
Food and food-related products are among the many categories reviewed by CHOICE. Typical articles in the lead-up to Christmas 2020 included reviews of milk chocolate, cooking oil and gingerbread house kits as well as “Christmas food fails and how to avoid them”.
Far from being a universally trusted source of consumer information, though, it seems CHOICE has its critics. There are several competitors including Canstar and Product Reviews. And at a time when online forums, websites and social media allow every consumer to have a voice, it remains to be seen whether CHOICE will remain the trusted authority on product testing and reviews.