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Founder of the Consumers Union Dies

May 22, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

The economist who founded and guided the Consumers Union through the troubled decades when it was criticized for being part of a communist conspiracy on the one hand and too politically cautious on the other, has died.

Colston E. Warne was 87 when he died Wednesday in Bedford, Mass.

Warne was a disenchanted founding member of Consumers Research, believed to be the first independent testing organization in the country, when he and and other dissatisfied consumer advocates in 1936 founded Consumers Union, the research and testing agency that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

That small band of chemists, economists and engineers had left Consumers Research after a labor dispute. Warne became the first president of Consumers Union, a post he held until his retirement in 1979.

In the ensuing 33 years, Warne expanded CU from an initial staff of 10 and 3,000 charter subscribers to an organization in the hundreds with a magazine subscription list of 3.8 million.

Wife Did Some of the Testing

"My wife did a good bit of the testing in the early days," he told The Times in an interview shortly after he retired. "Canned tomato and orange juice--we (also) tested can openers. We took a vacant store in Amherst (New York) and gave them (other wives) canned goods to open. Then, in payment for their time, they took home the food."

Volume 1, No. 1 of Consumer Reports, published in May, 1936, reported that large size Ivory soap (at 9 cents a bar) was a "best buy" and that Grade A milk versus Grade B was not worth the 3 cent price difference.

Today much of Consumers Union time is spent testing automobiles as opposed to edibles.

"People (now) trust their own senses when it comes to food," Warne said. But they don't trust their own senses when it comes to deciding what model car to buy. CU is really built on the motorcar. We even own an auto testing track in southern New Jersey."

Michael Pertschuck, a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and once a member of CU's board, credited Warne's deliberate, cautious style with the agency's enduring successes.

But the organization almost died aborning.

Shortly after it was formed, the group was attacked by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as being a communist device to undermine the government. Because the publication has always refused advertising--to demonstrate its independence from the products it tests--Consumer Reports was considered a plot against free enterprise.

But the charges had a reverse effect, and Warne looked back on that well-publicized controversy as the biggest reason for CU's acceptance by the public.

The sanguineness that carried Warne and CU through those crisis years was later widely criticized by consumer advocate Ralph Nader when he resigned from the agency's board.

Didn't See Political Role

"He's a very decorous-type guy," Nader said of Warne when he quit in protest over what he said was an overly cautious approach to consumer protectionism. "He's cautious about bringing CU into areas of controversy like lobbying and litigation, and I think he's gotten inhibited from his experience in the '30s with Red-baiting."

But Warne never saw himself as a political activist or lobbyist. CU exists, he said, to help the consumer make judicious decisions in the marketplace.

"Our readers are usually cursing us for being too strong in our sentiments," he replied to Nader. "Stick to testing they say. Forget the other stuff."

Warne, who also taught economics at Amherst College for nearly 40 years, started life with ambitions to become a banker. But an economics professor at Cornell, where he took undergraduate and graduate degrees, changed his mind.

He went to the University of Chicago and wrote a doctoral thesis on the consumer cooperative movement in Illinois. Shortly after he read the book "Your Money's Worth," which suggested that consumer organizations and product testing could be as worthwhile as advertising.

Thus was born Consumers Research and subsequently Consumers Union.

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