About Sidney Shainwald

The Sidney Shainwald Public Interest Lectures are held to honor the memory of a remarkable man. Sidney was unusual for his time; a combination of both dreamer and pragmatist; a thinker and a doer; a political junkie working for democratic ideals with a lifelong commitment to social and economic justice, as well as gender equality.

Sidney Shainwald was born in Brooklyn in 1917 and graduated from the City College of New York in 1939. That same year, at the age of twenty-two, Sidney wrote his thesis, the first on the subject, titled “Consumer Product Testing: A Comparative Analysis”. He defined the responsibilities of Consumers Union to include not only product testing but reporting on the conditions under which the products are made.

After serving in the South Pacific, Sidney became a partner in a public accounting firm – sharing his desk and political views with I.F. Stone, a fellow radical. Sidney believed it was essential to create a more harmonious and peaceful world. He joined several radical organizations which had the same ideals and goals.

In his practice, Sidney was also deeply committed to the arts, and represented some of the greatest artists and entertainers of the twentieth century, including Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz, Naum Gabo, George Grosz, Peggy Guggenheim, Mike Todd, Zero Mostel, David Merrick, Albert and Mary Lasker, Josh Logan, Dinah Shore, Eddie Albert, London Film Productions, Tricolor Films Ltd., Magnum Photos, and the Palestine Economic Corp. He was also the accountant for, and astute investor in, several shows and movies, including Fanny, The Bells are Ringing, and Around the World in Eighty Days.

For Sidney, social justice was the desired result; Consumers Union was the mechanism through which to achieve it. It was much more than a magazine: it was a movement for change. The founders of the organization believed that product testing was a means to organize consumers to promote their welfare. CU’s goal was not merely to evaluate products, but to “initiate, to cooperate with, and to aid group efforts of whatever nature – seeking to create and maintain decent living standards for ultimate consumers.”

Consumerism had become a household word, and Consumers Union, which has been termed a unique social invention, is now inextricably woven into the fabric of society. CU now has more than eight million subscribers to its products and services, and an annual budget of $250 million. It is the only social reform organization born in the Depression that has survived. At the time of Sidney’s retirement, the American prototype had been replicated in over 120 countries. Today IOCU, known as Consumers International, has a membership of over 240 organizations in 120 countries.

When CU asked Sidney to work full-time, he left his practice and eventually became the Interim Executive Director, Associate Director, an ex-officio member of the Board of Directors, CU’s liaison to the Consumer Association of Canada, representative to the Consumer Federation of America and a delegate to the International Organization of Consumers. From Holland to Hong Kong, he gave speeches and presented papers to budding and burgeoning consumer organizations which he visited worldwide. As CU continued to grow through the years, the Chicago Tribune noted that “Sidney Shainwald was CU’s financial brains since the year after its founding”. During Sidney’s tenure, CU established three advocacy offices, became involved in the environmental movement, launched Penny Power, a magazine for children, fostered educational efforts, and was instrumental in launching the American Council on Consumer Interests. The organization also continued to expand its interest and considerable resources on vital economic, social, and health issues.

The editor of Consumer Reports lauded him: “Sidney is among a small handful of the most principled human beings I have ever known.” He was CU’s liaison to its worldwide consumer organizations. In that role he gave speeches and sponsored fledgling organizations.

John Kerry noted, “Sidney Shainwald had a remarkable career as really the person who created consumer awareness, consumerism and consumer accountability and did such an extraordinary job in changing people’s attitudes.”

In 1980, Sidney paid tribute to the founding president of Consumers Union, with whom he worked for more than forty years. He spoke on behalf of the staff: “If Consumers Reports were to make a product evaluation of Dr. Colston Warne, it might read something like this: "A unique model, a once-in-a-lifetime production, exceedingly efficient...Definitely top-rated and the best buy ever." The same can be said for Sidney Shainwald.