The Consumer Movement is Alive and Well

Speech at the 29th Annual Conference of the American Council of Consumer Interests held in Kansas City, USA on 16-19 March 1983.

The consumer movement everywhere owes a great deal to Dr. Colston Warne. I owe him a great deal too for letting me walk with him during my first days of the consumer movement.

I also owe Dr. Warne a letter. Last night, I wrote that letter and I like to share it with you.

Dear Dr. Warne,

In 1934, nearly 50 years ago (seven years before I was even born), you said, “it is likely that nothing short of a revolution will substantially alter the character of the business system or its ally, advertising.”

I like to let you know of the state of that revolution, that began here in the U.S. in the 1900s, the so-called ‘progressive’ era, marked by the works of Dr. Wiley and ‘his poison squad’, Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ and which culminated in the Pure Food Law of 1906;

That revolution that had its second wind in the 1930s, the ‘New Deal’ era marked by the works of Chase, Schlink and Kallet, the most significant event of which was the founding of the Consumers Union in 1936, now the world’s largest consumer organisation.

That revolution that burst out a third time with great excitement in the 1960s, marked by the work of Kefauver and the world’s best known consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, and the founding of the International Organization of Consumers Unions. Perhaps, the most stirring and hopeful event of that era was the speech by the late President J.F. Kennedy on the rights of consumers, a speech made exactly 21 years and two days ago on March 15. On that date, groups from as diverse countries as Fiji, Finland, India, Hong Kong, Spain, the United Kingdom and a host of others celebrated Consumer Rights Day, for the first time this year.

Dear Dr.Warne, all this is familiar to you. More than that, you were so much a part of it. We need continuously to be reminded of the past, the struggle, of the starts, the bursts and the busts, the excitement, the victories, the dashed hopes. We need to celebrate more victories, and we need to learn from our failures.

Dear Dr.Warne, the ‘80s are seeing the beginning of a fourth wave in the consumer movement – a period during which the movement has become really global, being able to give an effective multinational response to multinational issues; it has also tasted its first major victory at the global level, a victory of health over profits, a victory that involved the protection and promotion of a natural, superior, product – breastmilk. The International Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was passed on May 21, 1981, in the first global consumer protection code.

Yes, Dr.Warne, the consumer movement is alive and well.

The struggle for the control of reprehensible and often irresponsible marketing has spawned new global networks; it has drawn together groups from churches and unions, feminist groups and professionals; it has given us the nation’s largest non-union boycott – that of Nestle’s products, and the first global consumer boycott of its kind – a boycott very critical of the success of the campaign to protect and promote breastfeeding.

This work on breastfeeding is being coordinated by a global network called the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

New networks exist around pesticides, around pharmaceuticals, around the export of banned ad severely restricted products – Pesticide Action Network (PAN), Health Action International (HAI) and the Consumer Interpol.

The consumer movement has begun to excite, interest and involve ordinary people in a way unprecedented in our short history. Diverse organisations are building on the strength of weak links, creating decentralised participatory structures, unencumbered by bureaucracy, which enable the maximum output of citizen groups spread throughout the world and united in a new form of solidarity. There are now, for example, efforts for global codes and other measures to put an end to unethical and harmful practices in the pharmaceutical and pesticide industries.

And consumer groups are linking the Third World with the First World, sharing and acting together.

Research in the United Kingdom shows a sonic mosquito repellent to be useless, if not dangerous, because of the false security it may give to people in malaria endemic areas. The information flows through telex machines to the headquarters in Penang, Malaysia, of Consumer Interpol, the popular name of a global citizens system of alerts on hazardous products. In Indonesia, the government on receipt of the alert from its consumer organisation, bans the product!

Yes, Dr.Warne, the consumer movement is alive and well.

Take the 10 largest nations in the developing world which together have a population of 2.4 billion. The representative of the People’s Republic of China at the first United Nations Consultation on Consumer Protection stated, “It is the sacred right of consumers to be protected”. India, the second largest nation of the world, has 27 consumer groups, Brazil has 62, Thailand has seven, the Philippines has four, Nigeria has three. Pakistan has one and Bangladesh and Indonesia have among the most active groups in the developing world. In Mexico, the media give out 10,000 consumer protection and information messages a day (one of my favourite messages is “give affection, don’t buy it”). The new Spanish and Korean Constitutions enshrine the rights of consumers.

Yes, Dr.Warne, the consumer movement is alive and well.

But our work has just begun and we have miles to go, and like that, I guess, of the Kansas cowboy of the old days, the consumer advocates’ work will never be done.

We live in a world in which 50,000 people die each day from lack of clean water and sanitation, while each minute the world spends one million US dollars on arms, on guns, bombs, tanks, and missiles.

Yes, Dr.Warne, the whole world is not that much a better place – we sometimes redistribute our problems, solving one, creating another. Violence, waste and manipulation have become profitable for the merchants of death, the rapists of the earth and those who manipulate our behaviour, our fears and desires.

Yes, Dr. Warne, the whole world is still too much a Sinclair’s Jungle - Kallet and Schlink would today probably write ‘Four Billion Guinea Pigs’. Yes, much of the world is still a dark marketplace – a marketplace in which there is too much Violence.

It has been estimated in a recent book ‘Prescriptions for Death’ that pharmaceuticals may be responsible for a minimum of 10 to 15 million cases of injury and one million deaths each year from among the three billion people in the developing world. Conservative figures suggest at least 375,000 people in the Third World are poisoned yearly by pesticides and, of them, at least 10,000 die because of pesticides that are very often not permitted in the countries of origin.

We live in a market place in which there is too much Waste. No figures will be enough to describe the wanton destruction and misuse of resources, processes, products in our society. We see the destruction of the tropical forests and the waste of meagre incomes by poor people in the Third World on useless, in appropriate products – products they do not need nor can afford. In Bangladesh, it was once said that the bulk of the vitamins bought were purchased by people who did not need them and they mostly were excreted as urine – vitaminised urine is a luxury that Bangladesh can do without!

We live in a marketplace in which there is too much Manipulation. Probably one of the greatest behavioural change occurred in the way in which the natural, unbeatable, self-reliant method of feeding babies with milk from the mothers’ breasts was subverted and supplanted by two kinds of so-called ‘modern technologies’ – the technology of processed cows’ milk and the technology of marketing. We see pervasive manipulation of people’s behaviour through advertising and promotional tactics that border in certain industries on the criminal and immoral – offering bribes, from ball pens to women. The subversion of breastfeeding itself has been associated with health problems among 10 million infants a year. James Grant, Director of UNICEF, has said that if we can protect and promote breastfeeding we can save the lives of one million infants a year!


This fourth wave has its books too, among them

  • The Circle of Poison, by David Weir and Mark Schapiro
  • Bitter Pills, by Dianna Melrose
  • A Growing Problem by David Bull
  • Prescriptions for Death, by Milton Silverman, Philip Lee and Mia Lydecker
  • Drug Diplomacy by Charles Medawar and Barbara Freese
  • The Health of Nations by Mike Muller;
  • Pills, Pesticides and Profits by A. Karim Ahmed, S. Jacob Scherr and Robert Richter;
  • Tomorrow’s Epidemic: Tobacco in the Third World by Mike Muller.

Dr.Warne, I know you are too gentle to use harsh words and show anger. And I believe, as you do, that our means must be as humane as our ends. We both value the precious model that enables true participation of citizens in organising our social, economic life, with dignity and safety. But sometimes you cannot but be angry.

Dr.Warne, the United States stands for many precious and valuable things. In the last few years, this precious model has been demeaned. An executive order on the subject of the export of banned and severely restricted products lasted 84 days. A measure that would have recognised a serious social responsibility by the world’s greatest power that recognised human rights was dismantled. There were reports of millions of dollars being offered to government officials of very corrupt governments, to store hazardous wastes. The Third World can become ignorant recipients of your “Love Canals and your Times Beaches”.

When the International Code for the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was passed at the World Health Assembly on 21May 1981, 118 nations voted for it, one nation voted against it – that government was the United States!

When on December 17 1982, a few months ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted on international actions to help overcome the problems of dumping of hazardous products through the establishment of central list of such products, 146 nations, including every developed country in Europe, voted for these simple first steps. One government and only one government again voted against – the United States of America.

Dr.Warne, you will remember how Consumers’ Union and yourself were subject to harassment during the McCarthy era. The same evil methods are becoming visible again. There are attempts to colour the consumer movement as anti-free enterprise and recently your representative to the United Nations warned of an ‘iron triangle’ when talking to the American Enterprise Institutes. She talked of the ‘emergence of an iron triangle’ uniting non-government organisations, Third World governments and ideologically sympathetic international bureaucrats in quest of international health and safety regulations. The Heritage Education, based in Washington, D.C. has recently made sinister innuendos about the International Organization of Consumers Unions.

Dr.Warne, they lost when they tried such red baiting tactics with you and the Consumers Union and surely they will fail again because the truth is on our side.

And, Dr.Warne, that they pay this much attention must surely encourage us. We must be having an impact we must be doing all right.


Yes, Dr.Warne, the consumer movement is alive and well.

You showed the way through fearless courage, through innovation of the science of consumption, through decades of stamina. Today, your work is continued in the halls of academia, when our work is considered worthy of study; our work is continued in the halls of the highest levels of governments of the world, in the forums of the United Nations, when we have achieved the dignity of resolutions, reports and even been rewarded with a Code.

It is being continued in the boycott of Ciba-Geigy’s products by Swedish doctors, because of the marketing of the drug Clioquinol, banned there and in the United States, but still widely available in developing countries. It is being continued in the many thousands of people in the US and eight or so other countries where products of Nestle (e.g. Taster’s Choice) are being boycotted because of their non-acceptance in full of the WHO International Code on the marketing of infant formula.

These activities and those of the global networks of International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), Health Action International (HAI), Pesticide Action Network (PAN) and Consumer Interpol, will continue to be the cutting edge of the consumer movement. The precious work of information through testing and research will continue to give us that power to buy or not to buy and the work of public interest law groups will make laws more open and responsive to people’s needs.

Dr.Warne, under your leadership, Consumers Union gave birth not just to IOCU but also very much to the American Council of Consumer Interests (ACCI). ACCI represents an intellectual blood bank that is unsurpassed in the world. The reservoir of professional talent,  knowledge and skills in the field of consumer protection cannot be beaten. They have honoured you for your pioneering work. My hope is that more will display the courage and stamina that you have displayed. My hope is that they will see the link between their work and the problem of consumers everywhere.

  • That an international dimension will become part of their consumerist personality.
  • That they become involved in the new exciting fourth wave not just for selfish professional reasons, not just for charity towards poor, helpless consumers in deprived countries, but because we share one earth, breathe one air, rise from one ocean – a fragile structure that calls for a new responsible consumption,
  • That they will become aware that when we are talking about consumer rights, we are talking about human rights, about precious norms for a decent life with dignity.


If the consumer movement is to be competent and relevant of these times, these challenges have to be taken. In this new paradigm, in this fourth wave, we must recognise not just the cost of living but as much the cost of survival, not just value for money but as much the value for people. We have to see both the faces of high prices – the high price that hurts our pockets and the high price we pay in damage to our health and environment.

I am confident, Dr.Warne, that many more Americans will follow your footsteps and the American consumers will rise even more strongly to help in that revolution for a more responsible consumer society that you talked about nearly 50 years ago.

Thank you, Dr.Warne, for everything. I promise to write again. Take care of yourself.

With warm regards

Anwar Fazal
International Organization of Consumers Unions.

P.S. Rhoda Karpatkin of the Consumers Union will be talking tomorrow about IOCU and its work. I hope many will attend that session and talk about concrete ways to strengthen “the power of consumers.”



Thank you. Thank you very much for this opportunity to read this letter in lieu of delivering a lecture.

Thank you all for your patience and God bless.

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