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Rhoda Karpatkin’s Influence Endures on Product Choice and Product Safety

It is easy to overlook lifetime contributions that have made everyday life better. Obituaries are often the repositories for such legacy contributors such as the woman who outshone Ralph Nader as the nation’s most influential consumer advocate.

Most people have probably never heard of Rhoda Karpatkin, who died recently in New York at age 93. She may have been the most influential consumer advocate in American history who thought it was equally important to educate shoppers, regulators and lawmakers.

Karpatkin, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants, attended Brooklyn College and edited the student newspaper. Her reporting convinced her she could do more important things as a lawyer than a journalist. She earned her law degree from Yale University in 1953 and became a civil rights attorney.

Her advocacy role turned to consumerism when she became outside legal counsel for the Consumers Union, an independent nonprofit that tests products and publishes Consumer Reports. In 1974, Karpatkin became the first woman to lead the highly respected organization as its executive director.

Under her leadership, Karpatkin stressed providing credible information to consumers while engaging in consumer activism with Congress and regulatory agencies. Consumer Reports maintained its independence by refusing advertising and relying instead on paid subscriptions to its print edition and digital content.

During her watch, Consumer Reports subscriptions reached 4.2 million and internet subscribers topped 475,000. By 1993, Karpatkin had earned the reputation as the “nation’s smartest shopper”, whether it was for a car, refrigerator or electric toothbrush.

Authors Stephen Brobeck and Robert N. Mayer said in their book Watchdogs and Whistleblowers that Consumer Reports “used its product safety expertise to publicize safety hazards, advise regulators and inform Congress”.

Former Consumer Reports editor Kimberly Kleman said, “Rhoda combined an unwavering passion for the little guy with smart, strategic sense of how to effect change. Working for and with Rhoda was more than a job – it was a mission”. Kleman added that Karpatkin was one of the first publishers to believe consumers would pay for content they valued.

“Where would protections against unsafe products, fraud and misleading advertising come from if consumer advocates hadn’t fought for them?”

Karpatkin, Nader and Furness
Karpatkin became executive director when the organization’s board was split over its future role. Nader, as a member of the board, pushed for scrapping consumer testing to allow full-time consumer advocacy. Karpatkin, backed by New York City consumer affairs commissioner Betty Furness, believed Consumers Union could and should do both. Nader left the board over the disagreement.

Consumers Union hit a rough spot during the Reagan administration. Karpatkin told The New York Times, “The Federal Trade Commission now takes the view that consumers are willing to risk their dollars in the marketplace to buy products that are shoddy and falsely advertised. I think there will be a field day for fraudulent advertising and shoddy products”. The FTC is currently seeking to make it illegal to sell or buy fake product reviews and to make false product claims.

She overcame  rocky economic times to maintain an annual $157 million operating budget. Karpatkin also oversaw investments in an auto track and other test equipment that, for example, spun around suitcases and pounded mattresses with bowling balls cut in half to resemble human butts.

No Wall Flower
Karpatkin didn’t shy away from controversy. During the 1990s, as executive director of Consumers Union she advocated for a single-payor health care system, noting patients didn’t have the luxury of “shopping for doctors or hospitals”. She was a longtime volunteer and board member at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in New York.

Karpatkin also served as president of the International Organization of Consumers Unions that monitored multinational corporations and the impact of globalization and trade agreements. In that role, she traveled the world and urged government and business officials to treat health care and adequate food supplies as basic human rights.

Karpatkin married in 1951 after earning her undergraduate degree. Her husband died in 1975, a year after she took the reins of Consumers Union. She had two sons, 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

When she retired in 2001, Karpatkin reflected that she was attracted to Consumers Union as a young woman because it was “one of the quintessential do-good organization. You just got the feeling they couldn’t be bought, couldn’t be seduced”.

“Consumers would be in trouble if they couldn’t get sound, independent information, and that’s our prime responsibility,” Karpatkin told Consumer Reports. “We’ve dedicated ourselves to testing and journalism of the highest quality, and we have an impact on the marketplace.”

“But that’s not enough,” she continued. “Where would protections against unsafe products, fraud, misleading advertising and other things we take for granted come from if consumer advocates hadn’t fought for them? We’re not and never have been solely about which products to buy. We’re also about helping to build the kind of society we want to be consumers in.”

Too often women pioneers are overshadowed by their male peers. If but for an obituary, many of us would not be aware of Karpatkin, her career, her impact and her legacy on the cars we drive, the appliances we depend on and the consumer products we use every day.