Consumerism: the Developing Challenge
Address by Anwar Fazal, Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, International Organization of Consumers Unions at the Mauritius National Consumer Congress held in Port Louis, Mauritius, 28-29 May 1976.
A kerosene stove kills a working mother, everyday shoppers in our markets get cheated on weights; blatantly false advertisements appear in our newspapers; door to door salesmen and market fairs sell imitations of popular consumer goods; dangerous and often spurious drugs flood the markets; multinational corporations market goods using tactics that are banned in their own countries, e.g. certain encyclopedia sales tactics; a poorly constructed reading lamp kills a student.
Healthy mothers are drawn away from breastfeeding by calculated persuasive campaigns; factories makes stones to adulterate rice and other cereals; dangerous dyes used for fabrics are used for cakes and food; unsafe goods not permitted for sale in certain countries find their way into others. Fish poisoned by industrial pollution finds its way to our markets. Shoddy workmanship gives house owners a raw deal.
High interest rates leach our poor further through disguised trade practices; poor public transport makes travel a living hell; guarantees are given that are worthless; “cheap” sales that are better described as “cheat” sales; economy packs that only improve economy of those who manufacture and sell; special offers that specialise in disposing the discarded goods at your expense; mail orders that end up in commercial blackmail basing its strength in seemingly innocuous fine print; children’s toys that maim and kill; monopolies and cartels and hoarding reflecting themselves in often intractable and infuriating problems – unjustified high prices, and artificial shortages and monopoly profits.
This is the kind of stuff which has given birth to a new world-wide social movement, a movement that is dedicated to fighting injustice in the market place, that seeks only a fair deal for humankind – nothing more, nothing less. In a highly organised society with powerful vested interests the individual often is helpless, but the freedom of the individual, the right to organise himself as a group, the right to participation as a citizen in the political process accords him the opportunity to seek redress.
The citizen can form voluntary organisations, and act on the maxim that “unity is strength”, that “a hundred speaking in one voice is superior to a thousand single murmurs". Now in every continent, in countries of every stage of development, there are such groups – at the local level and at the national level. In 1960, this movement gained formal international status with the formation of I.O.C.U., a non-profit, non-political independent foundation, owned and run by consumers, that acts for consumers at the international level. Some 100 organisations now make up the membership of I.O.C.U. which has its headquarters in the Hague, Netherlands. It has a consultative status with the United Nations and many of the specialised agencies. It speaks for consumers in international forums; it acts as a coordination centre for consumer organisations; it publishes and disseminates information; it organises seminars and conferences and it undertakes research on important consumer issues at the international level.
Citizens have a second power – that of using their right to vote. Throughout the world individuals and as groups they have sought to influence Government to give consumers a fair deal. They have sought to establish the rights of consumers and to ensure the practical application of these rights. What are these rights:-
- the right to safety, to be protected from hazardous goods;
- the right to information, not to be misled by lack of information or misinformation;
- the right to fair prices and choice, to have access to a variety of products and services and where monopoly prevails, a minimum guaranteed quality at reasonable prices;
- the right to representation, to be consulted and involved in decisions affecting the consumer;
- the right to redress, to have access to a complaint machinery and fair and speedy compensation procedures;
- the right to consumer education, life-long consumer education becoming part of the education process; Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic means little if it is not related to the 4th R – the real – life marketplace;
- the right to a healthy environment, that permits the consumer to lead a life in dignity
This Congress could do well to reaffirm these rights.
Governments have responded – they must respond – to a just cause. They respond because it concerns every person in the community. They respond because it concerns the health, the safety and the economic well being of its citizens. They respond because they cannot ignore an increasing vocal, progressive, movement. These are realities of political life: Now is most parts of the world consumer protection is a legitimate and essential activity for intervention by Governments – through legislation, through effective enforcement by its bureaucracy, and through education of the community.
Governments, of course, have many pressures that bear on them, powerful traditional pressures by the commercial and industrial community. Experience shows that honest businessmen have nothing to fear. Only those that are guilty of making the marketplace a dump for their own financial profit, who fear loses through the elimination of their exploitive practices, will oppose the just cause of the consumer. The fact of life is that there are such influences. The early seventies saw massive hoarding and speculation at the international level by those hungry for profits. These responsible I like to call the “commercial terrorists”; then there are those who have been responsible for “commerciogenic malnutrition” through the sale of junk and other foods; there are also those who cause “commercial manslaughter” by selling unsafe goods. There are those who participate in the many little ways of fleecing the consumers – the commercial pickpockets”. These may seem harsh terms to those uninitiated to the realities but I believe harsh malpractices require harsh descriptions, not gentle admonition.
The tasks before us therefore are real, important, and urgent. They require constructive vigilance and a steadfast adherence to the principles that underlie that consumer interest. They also require intelligent, carefully considered action, objective and often highly technical research and a high degree of professionalism. Sheer vocalism (“lung power”) and sloganeering may have a role in highlighting and dramatising issues but real progress, real benefits for the consumer will only be gained through responsible and constructive policies and programmes.
For the individual consumer this means certain responsibilities. They include the following:
i) join and support the consumer movement in your country. Make sure that it is non-partisan, non-political but aggressive and forthright in its fight for a better deal for consumers. Make certain it is responsible, constructive and untainted by puerile opportunistic interests.
ii) follow the advice given by the Consumers Groups and Government agencies regarding planning their purchases, regarding call for joint action.
iii) co-operate with the Consumers groups and those Government agencies that are in this area of consumer protection by giving them quick and accurate information about exploitation, hoarding and other commercial malpractices.
iv) write to your Member of Parliament, and Ministries on action for consumer protection
v) write to the press and express your views and feelings about the consumer situation and give constructive suggestions.
vi) examine their eating and purchasing habits. Cut out unnecessary purchases. (buy goods for the nutritive value rather than for prestige.) Eliminate waste in the use of electricity, water, oil and gas. Avoid buying on hire purchase rates. Borrow from co-operatives if necessary
vii) join the co-operative organisations and organise themselves as an alternative economic unit.
8. The Government has its share of responsibility. These could include:-
a. Identify critical issues, and establish priorities in the three broad areas of consumer interest:
i. Consumer Representation including structures and organisational aspects. Here we are concerned with how the Consumer interest is represented n the total context of the national economy and how consumer organisations best represent that interest;
ii. Consumer Legislation – here we are concerned how the consumer is protected by Government agencies;
iii. Consumer Education – Here we are concerned with both informal and formal aspects for all the different social groups of consumers – children, youth, adults, women, etc;
b. Focus on key subject areas that are of consumer interest, e.g.
i. prices, quality, and quantity of goods and services
ii. food and drugs
iii. standards and safety
iv. weights and measures
v. advertisements and unfair trade practices;
vi. cooperatives and other self-help systems;
c. The development of a national consumer policy that is comprehensive, and efficient and meaningful in its implementation, that establishes immediate medium term and long range goals, programmes and activities;
d. Inclusion of consumer education as part of the civic education provided to all citizens.
1. The business and manufacturing community too have a responsibility. They have duty to put their own houses in order and to establish codes of ethics that are rigorously and sincerely applied. They can form Fair Trade Associations.
2. Mauritius can be proud that it has a growing consumer consciousness that it has a government that has demonstrated its receptiveness and concern for consumer issues and has translated this concern into meaningful programmes. It stands out among the leaders in the leaders in the African continent in this field and has the unique distinction to having a minister for consumer affairs that has no parallel in any developing country in the world, as far as I am aware.
3. Friends please permit me to make a few personal comments. This is the age of “Instant Tea” and this “instant syndrome” reflects itself in instant experts, instant advice and instant solutions. I have come with none; instead I have come to share the reservoir of past experience, present realities and future hopes; I have not come to prescribe. Like all visitors, however, I cannot resist the temptation to think aloud some personal impressions.
4. During my short stay here I have had the opportunity to attend your parliament, to hear members of both sides of the house and I had the opportunity to listen to the budget speech. I visited markets of all kinds, shapes and sizes, large supermarkets and small village outlets, and cooperatives. I have had the opportunity to speak to a cross section of your people, to visit your social welfare centres village halls and sub-halls, all unannounced. I have been a “busybody consumer”, peering, pecking and asking questions and reading your papers. By worldwide standards, and taking into account your special circumstances, Mauritians can be proud that they stand among the leaders in the developing world in having a decent quality of life for its citizens. One Mauritian, of humble origin, even told me that “Mauritius is the best place in the world”. Even if he was a little xenophobic, the fact is that many consumers in most developing countries would envy your position.
5. You are beginning to break the back of your price and shortages problem and with greater experience and effective market intelligence both domestic and international, one can confidently expect even better results in this direction. You are beginning to look seriously beyond prices, to many other aspects of consumer protection – like credit, education and health and safety. The journey towards full consumer protection is a long and continuous one and you have begun this journey well.
6. The sweetness of your sugar is beaten only by the beauty of your island and the vitality and warmth of your people; because I have seen this reflected in the kind of bold and progressive measures that your Government, with the support of the people, have taken to enhance the quality of life here. For the consumers of Mauritius this congress is a high point in that same spirit.
7. Consumers everywhere will be watching closely. This Mauritian experiment – the application of Mauritian solutions of Mauritian problems. During this Congress you will take the momentous decision to launch a Consumer Council. In taking that decision, it may be wise to remember the ‘Dodo’. Give the Consumer Council wings that can make it fly, teeth that can bite, proper and adequate sustenance and protection from predators. If you do not, then the Consumer Council may – like the ‘Dodo’ – be fossilized and end up a mere showpiece:
8. the developments in your lovely country are exciting to all involved in the promotion of the consumer interest. The challenges you have accepted are, however, not easy ones. They will require commitment and resources. The International Organization of Consumers Unions (I.O.C.U) on its part will give you such assistance as it can within its resources and means to help you achieve those tasks.
9. New Economic Orders is the name of game today. A just economic order at the national and international level is not complete without due recognition of the legitimate interests of consumers particularly as they concern low-income consumers and poor nations everywhere.
10. This congress will contribute to an increasing awareness towards that end. The Mauritian consumer has placed in your hands the trust of charting out a constructive meaningful programme, to secure for them a better deal for always. I wish you the best in the task of meeting that developing challenge.Back to Speeches