Consumerism is for All People

Address by Mr.Anwar Fazal, Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, International Organisation of Consumers Unions at the Lions Club of Hong Kong Harbour, on 5 February 1976 at their luncheon meeting at the Hotel Furama Inter-Continental, Hong Kong.

1.       Yes, everyone of you is a consumer! There are consumer needs – air, water, food, clothing, shelter –and there are consumer desires – that special household work-saving device, that special dress. Some we get free and some we have to buy from the open market. And some we get from government, for which someone has to pay sooner or later.

2.       The individual consumer is confronted with a jungle of problems – of supply, of choice, hazards, price manipulation, and misrepresentation. He has to reckon with big and small business and with insensitive and inefficient bureaucracies. As a reaction to all this, consumers have got together and organised themselves to secure their interests and to represent the consumer. From the 1920s we began to see these groups emerging in the U.S. and Scandinavia and spreading to the rest of Europe, Australasia and Asia. Housewives organisations, labour unions, co-operatives, university groups began to involve themselves in this new field of social concern. 

3.       In 1960, consumerism emerged formally as an international force – the International Organisation of Consumers Unions (IOCU) was formed in the Hague, Netherlands by five consumer groups from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands. IOCU is an independent, non-political foundation, non-profit making and non-commercial. It exists to promote worldwide co-operation in consumer information, education and the comparative testing of goods and services. It has consultative or liaison status with the United Nations and its specialised agencies and represents the consumers at international meetings promoting the consumer interest in as diverse fields as food standards, the operation of monopolies and cartels, electrical safety regulations, energy conservation and the protection of the environment.

4.       Today, IOCU has some 100 members in over 40 countries, in every continent and at every stage of development. The most outstanding fact of the last decade has been the phenomenal growth of consumer organisations and consumer awareness both at the individual and governmental level in the Asian region – there are some 27 consumer organisations in 13 countries – from Iran in the west, through the Indian sub-continent, South-east Asia to Japan in the far east. There is hardly a government which has not awakened and responded positively to this new social movement – a movement based on equity and justice for the ordinary citizen in securing a fair deal in the basic of all human existence – the cost of living and, for a vast majority of Asians, the cost of sheer survival.

5.       What are the ingredients of this new social movement that has so rapidly emerged from being a tolerable public nuisance in the eyes of shady business to a popular legitimate activity for government legislation and action?

6.       Basically consumer organisations approach it as a matter of social conscience requiring remedy and involving certain human rights. These include:

·         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 fourth R – the real life marketplace

·         the right to a healthy environment, that permits the consumer to live a life in dignity.

Throughout the world consumer organisations are seeking some or all these kinds of rights and their practical manifestations.

7.       In the Asian region we have witnessed vicious and brutal kinds of malpractices that can only sometimes be equated with slow manslaughter while the milder kind of commercial pickpocketry is rampant. To the bulk of Asian consumers, low incomes, high illiteracy, corrupt and insensitive governments often add to the bewildering array of problems.

8.       The list of instances and kinds of exploitation is a long one and I shall only mention some of them:

·         Lack of safety regulations – in India, scores of women have died of fires caused by poorly constructed oil cooking stoves

·         Food adulteration is so rife that the poor do not get wholesome or right quantities of food. In India, factories that specialise in making stones which look like rice grains have been reported – the perverted ingenuity of unscrupulous adulterations is remarkable

·         Shortweight – a sample survey of markets in another Asian country showed that 90 percent of the purchases weighed less than what they were supposed to when purchased

·         Misuse of colouring matter – in Malaysia, Rhodamine B, a colouring used in paints, was found widely used in certain popular flavourings of foodstuffs

·         Many popular goods are subject to imitation manufacture – e.g. soap, toothpaste, tea and more serious, over-the-counter medicines for common ailments like coughs, colds and headaches, many of them of doubtful value even in the genuine state and perhaps adding insult to injury

·         Backyard factories have been found producing antibiotics and other potent and dangerous drugs of dubious quality;

·         Blatant, misleading advertising can be found on bill-boards, in newspapers and other mass media channels. Van salesmen tour rural villages getting low income consumers to spend their little money on goods of little and doubtful value – directed largely at women who throng the village markets

·         Some communities are also characterised by “conspicuous consumption” – births, weddings and deaths become occasions for excessive expenditure, leading to debt. The absence of fair credit laws and facilities drives low income consumers into the clutches of money lenders who charge rates as high as 10 percent a month – very often leading to a lifetime bondage

·         In urban areas, new hire purchase plans – ‘buy now, pay later’ – are foisted on low income consumers at rates as high as 40 percent per annum while the media may perpetrate the kind of social climate which raises the aspirations for the purchase of goods they neither need nor can afford

·         Advertising tactics banned and discarded in developed societies penetrate the mass media; such advertising in surprisingly often organised by branches of large multinational advertising and public relations firms doing what they no longer are permitted to do in their home countries

·         Sales gimmicks and tactics of the kind regulated or banned in developed countries are now appearing in developing countries, e.g. greed and has been the result of the downfall of many;

·         Breastfeeding is subtly discouraged and the powerful multinationals, hungry for profits, often sold infant milk formulas through a system of “mothercraft nurses”, using high-pressure advertising, free gifts etc. Many low income families have been influenced to down rate breastfeeding and turn to milk powder which they can ill afford, which they are unable to prepare in the right strength and with proper sterilisation

·         The recent world food crisis saw massive profiteering at the international, national and local levels. With stock markets and world currencies unstable, huge sums of money turned to capture the markets for foodstuff and other essentials for the sole purpose of speculative profits. At the end of the line, many poor consumers had no rice, no bread, no sugar; and half-hearted measures by often helpless governments only lead to black markets. Japanese financiers who were guilty of such activity in Japan were made to apologise and humble themselves in person in the Japanese Parliament for activities of profiteering in Japan;

·         Action of multinational corporations in the control of markets, price fixing, transfer pricing, tax manipulation which all act in the end against the consumer interest;

·         Corporate responsibility is also seen in blatant cases of the “export of pollution”- highly polluting industries are relocated in developing countries

·         The activities of some pharmaceutical firms in creating unjustifiable differences in standards, prices, dosage and indications for the same drugs in different countries have been uncovered by consumer groups.

9.       The kinds of exploitation I have outlined will continue to be the subject of consumer investigation and exposure in many countries. In others, consumer groups will work on the less dramatic but equally important and often more difficult issues, issues of consumer education, information and product testing which will remain central to many consumer programmes.

10.   In any case, consumerism has come to Asia and is here to stay. No more will the doctrine of caveat emptor (buyer beware) be the sole protection of the consumer. There will be an equal burden on the seller to beware. Asian consumers will speak with a little more voice and with a little more weight against shoddy goods, misleading advertising and unethical business practices.

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