The Consumer Movement: Global Opportunities, Universal Challenges

Speech by Anwar Fazal at the inauguration ceremony of the Indian Institute of Consumer Studies, held on 15 March 1995 in Bangalore, India.

 Gaia (pronounced ‘ga-yah’) is the Greek word for mother earth, a living, complex sphere. Gaia we are told is 4,600 million years’ old. If we condense this mind-boggling figure into something we can understand, and assume that Gaia is 46 years of age, we are told that

·         Nothing is known to us about the first seven years of Gaia’s life.

·         Nothing much is known about Gaia as a teenager or young adult.

·         Only at age 42, did Gaia begin to flower.

·         Dinosaurs and the great reptiles appeared only a year ago when Gaia was 45.

·         The ice age enveloped Gaia only last weekend.

·         Modern humankind has been around for four hours.

·         During the last hour, we discovered agriculture, and

·         The industrial revolution began one minute ago.

During the minute, those sixty seconds, we have ransacked the planet in the name of development, sometimes for need, every often for greed! We have caused the extinction of some 500 species of animals. We have accumulated such deadly weapons that can kill us many times over. We have also generated much happiness, creativety and beauty. But it is a constant struggle.

It is as if Gaia, mother earth, is itself suffering from AIDS. Her immune systems are being devastated as

·         Her circulation systems, the water and air are being poisoned

·         Her lungs, the forests, are being wantonly destroyed

·         Her skin, the ozone layer and soil, are being seared and scraped.

All this devastation may go down paths from which there may be no return.

Can we do something to reverse this madness? Can we create a new paradigm of development and happiness that enables peace with ourselves,  peace with other people and peace with mother earth? As citizens, as consumers, we can and we must!

There is now a worldwide revolution by consumers, of consumers, for consumers. I like to share with you the essence of this revolution. I hope that in the sharing you too will join the struggle for a better world through a better lifestyle.

Some History

The consumer struggle is not new. Some 3,500 years ago, the Hittites in Anatolia, now in Turkey, had two very simple but powerful laws. The first stated, Thou shalt not poison thy neighbour’s oil” (i.e. there should be no unsafe products). The second stated, Thou shalt not bewitch thy neighbour’s oil” (i.e. don’t engage in misleading or manipulative market practices).

The so-called Middle Ages saw some tough laws. The French Law of 1481, for example, required that anyone who sold butter containing stones or other foreign bodies (to fraudulently increase the weight) would be put in a pillory and the offending butter placed on the seller’s head until entirely melted by the sun. In addition, dogs were allowed to come and feast off the butter, and people were allowed to insult the seller.

The battle for safe products and responsible market practices has continued over the centuries. The continued exploitation of the consumer saw the birth of the organised consumer movement and in 1960, a world body, the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) was founded.

The movement grew from strength to strength and on 9 April 1985,  10 years ago the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a worldwide charter on consumer protection. Its official title was the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection.

This decision bestowed a universal legitimacy on the decades of efforts by consumer advocates, and highlighted the importance that consumer protection had on economic and social development.

These guidelines addressed six legitimate needs of consumers

·         The protection of consumers from hazards to their health and safety.

·         The promotion and protection of the economic interests of consumers.

·         Access of consumers to adequate information to enable them to make informed choices according to individual wishes and needs.

·         Consumer education.

·         Availability of effective consumer redress.

·         Freedom to form consumer and other relevant groups or organisations and the opportunity of such organisations to present their views in decision-making processes affecting them.

These guidelines provide a challenge to consumers, business and government. They provide the framework for assertive, socially responsible production, marketing and consumption of goods and services.

What is the Consumer Movement Really About?

However, the consumer movement has suffered from taking a very narrow view - it talked too much about “value for money.” It did not talk enough about “value for people” and “value for mother earth”.

I like to share with you a new vision of the movement, a vision that not only requires us to be micro-sensible but also to be macro-responsible, to build on shared abundance and promote conspicuous frugality.

The consumer movement is about five important things.

First, the consumer movement is about people. People who are about society from a very special perspective, a perspective that concerns every single human being, man, woman, child, the hawker, doctor, even the lawyer and politician. This perspective is about ourselves as consumers - about the food we eat, the drink we take, medicines we use, products and service we get or don’t get. It is also about those who try because they put profits before health to manipulate our behaviour against our very interest through advertising and through the power they have to impose deprivations on us.

Secondly, the consumer movement is also about power - power of the ordinary people to organise themselves collectively to serve as a countervailing force to promote and protect our interests as consumers to help us fight the violence, waste and manipulation that characterise so many of our societies.

Thirdly, the consumer movement is also about human rights

·         The right to a decent life with dignity

·         The right to organise ourselves as consumers.

In particular, the consumer movement is about eight specific consumer rights. They are

The Right to Basic Needs. It means the right to basic goods and services, which guarantee survival. It includes adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education and sanitation.

The Right to Safety. It means the right to be protected against products, production processes and services which are hazardous to health or life. It includes concerns for consumers’ long-term interests as well as their immediate requirements.

The Right to Be Informed. It means the right to make an informed choice or decision. Consumers must be provided with adequate information enabling them to act wisely and responsibly. They must also be protected from misleading or inaccurate publicity material, whether in advertising, labeling, packaging or by other means.

The Right to Choose. It means the right to have access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices, and in the case of monopolies, to have an assurance of satisfactory quality and service at a fair price.

The Right to Be Heard. It means the right to advocate consumers’ interests with a view to their receiving full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation and execution of economic and other policies. It includes the right in governmental and other policy-making bodies as well as in the development of products and services before they are produced or set up.

The Right to Redress. It means the right to a fair settlement of just claims. It includes the right to receive compensation for misrepresentation of shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services and the availability of acceptable forms of legal aid or redress for small claims, where necessary.

The Right to Consumer Education. It means the right to acquire the knowledge and skills to be an informed consumer throughout life. The right to consumer education incorporates the right to the knowledge and skills needed for taking action to influence factors which affect consumer decisions.

The Right to a Healthy Environment. It means the right to a physical environment that will enhance the quality of life. It includes protection against environmental dangers over which the individual has no control. It acknowledges the need to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.

Fourthly, the consumer movement is also about the environment - about a sustainable earth. We cannot just be concerned serving and protecting the insides of our bodies, our inner limits, but we have equally to be concerned with the other limits of mother -spaceship earth, a powerful complex and yet so fragile, an exploitable structure that gives us the opportunity for a good life but which can be destroyed not by people’s needs but by people’s greed, ignorance and carelessness.

Fifthly, and lastly, the consumer movement is also about justice about the way in which our political, legal and economic systems are organised to bring about a fair, just and equitable and rational basis to promote and protect the public interest.

These five pillars, I believe, are the basis on which to judge the relevancy, competence and success of a consumer movement. These five pillars have become an integral part of the work of many consumer groups. I hope it will become part of your work.

To many groups in the Third World for whom just survival is victory, India has many models of what can be done. A critical, constructive, humanistic and ecological approach can be a constant source of guidance and inspiration for the rest of the world, guidance and inspiration so badly needed in many countries where corrupt governments in league with greedy business interests do not like to see a strong consumer movement (unless, of course, they can run it themselves).

Today is World Consumer Rights Day. Yet in many parts of the world, consumers are not able to exercise their rights or even know they exist. The law should protect and promote these rights and, sometimes even more critical, the right to organise around them. But laws are only a reflection of the state of our society - a violent, corrupt, manipulative society will breed laws that serve it. Laws can pervert and subvert justice and they can become a powerful instrument for systematic repression. Laws do not mean justice nor do they imply automatic action. There must be safeguards and the ultimate safeguard must be a critical, informed, active citizenry that is rooted in strong, clear, humanistic and ecological principles that can provide a unifying bond for our pluralistic societies. We need to be active, to be informed, to be critical. Mrs. J. Mandana, the mover of today’s historic event embodies these qualities and as long as there are more such people, we can hope for a more caring and just society.

Towards a Caring and Just Society

We live today in a world that is dominated by three terrible technologies:

·         The technology of violence - both of the structural kind that through neglect of provision of essential services, cause death and misery and the technological kind emanating from products, processes and wastes that maim and kill. An example is the irresponsible use of pesticides in the Third World.

·         The technology of manipulation - both from the machines of bureaucratic propaganda and behaviour control exercised by unbridled advertising techniques. These can prevent the free and informed expression of people’s participation. Vicious forms of hidden advertising like ‘product placement’ in feature movies and children’s programmes that are designed to create a consumer craving to buy and buy are becoming rampant.

·         The technology of waste – garbage has become a good measure of mal-development. Greenpeace estimates that some 3.2 million tons of waste are exported to developing countries, which are playing a role as garbage dumps. About 1.2 billion of the world 5.5 million people are over consumers and they are responsible for 70 per cent of the damage to the environment.

The world is fast moving to becoming a global supermarket as well as a super dump. We do not want to end up as a dustbin,  its prisoner or its victim.

Towards a New Vision

We should seek a new vision which embodies these three caring cultures

·         A culture of balance and harmony, representing the cycles and systems so well established by the law of nature

·         A culture of trusteeship and stewardship of this earth. We are only guardians of this earth

·         A culture of accountability, not only in the political sense but also to the future and for many of us to God almighty.


Six Ways To Spend US$25 Billion


One of the best examples of the perverted state of global priorities was stated powerfully in a recent United Nations report.

The UNICEF Report, 1993 State of the World Children states that US$25 billion extra a year is what it would take to meet the most basic needs of all the world’s children by the end of this decade, and yet what goes on instead are the following:

·         Smoke and Drink - US$25 billion is less than what America spends on cigarettes every six months and what Western Europe spends on alcohol every three months.

·         Aid for Russia - US$25 billion is a little more than the 1992 support package for Russia agreed to by the group of seven rich nations.

·         An airport for Hong Kong - US$25 billion is a little more than the estimated cost of Hong Kong’s new airport.

·         Wages of war - US$25 billion is about as much as the developing world spends every six months to pay the wages of its soldiers.

·         A new road for Japan - US$25 billion is less than what the government of Japan has allocated, in1992, to the building of a new road from Tokyo to Kobe.

It makes you think about the so-called “development”.

The Responsibilities of Consumers

It is easy to talk about consumer rights. For the future, even more important are going to be consumer responsibilities. Rights are the trunks and branches, responsibilities are the roots and the soil.

I like to share with you five principles which I have found useful which provides a framework for action as responsible consumers. We can call them the “panchasila” for consumers.

·         Critical Awareness – we must be awakened to be more questioning about the goods and services we consume. “Why” should we consume should be as important as “what” and “which”.

·         Involvement or Action – we must assert ourselves and act to ensure that we get a fair deal. We can start with ourselves then with those around us and move on to the community and the nation.

·         Social Responsibility – we must act with social responsibility, with concern, sensitivity to the impact of our actions on their citizens, in particular, in relation to disadvantaged groups in the community. Purchasing power is real power and the power to boycott is a powerful weapon. By voting with your purchasing power you can for example reinforce racist or repressive regimes or you can through selective purchases and non-purchases help to bring not just better products but a better world.

·         Ecological Responsibility – there must be a heightened sensitivity to the impact of consumer decisions on the physical environment, which must be developed to a harmonious way, promoting conservation. We must fight against the degradation of the environment if we are to see improvements in the real quality of life for the present and the future.

·         Solidarity – the best and most effective action is through cooperative efforts through the formation of citizens groups who together can have the strength and influence to ensure that adequate attention is given to the consumer interest.

You can start with these principles yourselves. You can learn from this saying - if the people are asleep, awaken them. If the people fear to act, give them courage by taking yourself the first step. And you must take that first step quickly.

In one city, not far from here, the umbilical cords of some two dozen babies born on one day in a leading hospital were tested for lead. Every one of the tests showed lead levels higher than those safely acceptable. Those babies were being born poisoned, retarded. In that same city, an international team studied air quality and found the air so unhealthy, they refused, for their own health, to return to that city for a follow-up monitoring exercise. That city recently won notoriety as the world’s most air polluted city. If we are not careful, our cities can end up with that kind of future, with poisoned wombs and poisoned babies.

Taking Action – the People Rising

We have seen a map of a cruel world. We have seen many creative strategies that can act as needles. But in the end it is people’s action that will make the difference. Remember the preamble, the UN Charter, “We the peoples…”

I would like to share with you seven action areas that can help to develop our strength to make the transformation needed.

Firstly, think Power and Politics – understanding the nature and structure of power and politics in our society, both local and global, know how decisions are reached and fully utilise the pressures that make politics work for you.

Secondly, think Multiplying Leadership – we have to create not just more followers but more leaders especially among women and youth.

Thirdly, think Lateral – link with other groups – mass media, women, ecology, youth and religious groups. Such alliances make powerful synergy.

Fourthly, think Everywhere – encourage the proliferation of autonomous self-reliant groups at all levels and all places. Little victories have a way of creeping up to become national revolutions.

Fifthly, think Action – there must be a constant stream of simple, high profile, do-able activities that must be specific and have visible targets.

Sixthly, think Structural – look at the root cause of the problems, not just at the symptoms.

There is a story I would like to share that helps us to remember this

A man sees a baby drowning in a river, he jumps in and saves the baby. As he is bringing the baby ashore, he sees another baby floating down the river and he rushes in to save the second one. And then he sees a third, a fourth, and a fifth, he is busy saving the drowning babies that he has not time to look up the river to see the person throwing the baby into the water.

Seventhly, think Long Term – social problems are not going to disappear easily or quickly. We have to build frameworks, institutions, resources and people who will ensure the stamina for a long struggle.


In conclusion, let me share with you a poem that reminds us about Gaia, about mother earth, about being responsible consumers.

“Harm not the land, nor the sea nor the trees

For the earth is the mother of all

And we who abuse her

And poison her now,

By abuse and poison will fall.


Harm not the land, nor the sea nor the trees

For water is more

precious than gold,

And our sisters the oceans

that bring us new life.

Till the warmth of the sun grows cold.


Harm not the land, nor the sea nor the trees,

For the leaves of the

Forest bring rain

And our brothers the trees are the cradle of life

To destroy them will mark

us with deep pain.


Harm not the land, nor the sea nor the trees,

Though fortunes are to be made,

But a fortune is false

if the soul of the land

is the price that will

have to be paid.


Harm not the land, nor the sea nor the trees,

For they are not yours or mine,

They belong to the children

of children unborn

Form now till

the end of time.”



Thank you,

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