What the Consumer Movement is All About

Text of the address by Anwar Fazal, President of the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) delivered at the Right Livelihood Foundation Award presentation ceremony at Stockholm Sweden on  9 December 1982.  Anwar Fazal shared the award, popularly called the “Alternative Nobel Prize”, with three other persons.

One day some three years ago in the village of Banjaran in Indonesia, the silence was broken by beating drums that brought together some 200 people.

The people marched to a nearby chemical factory and burned it to the ground.

The factory had poisoned their water. That factory had destroyed their once productive field.

That factory had ignored orders by local officials to curb the flow of toxic wastes.

That factory had failed to deliver a promised US$1,800 compensation to the affected farmers.

The villagers had for years been trying to get the factory to improve their waste disposal practices.

The drums of the village of Banjaran are now silent and the farmers had to pay the price of taking the law into their own hands – they had to go to prison.

Waters poisoned, rice fields rendered infertile, burning factories, lives destroyed and people crushed. This is the kind of tragic world 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 US$ one million on arms, guns, bombs, tanks, etc.

Today, we live in a world in which violence, waste and manipulation have not only become central elements in our lives but which have become profitable for the merchants of death, the rapists of the earth, and those who manipulate our behaviour, our fears and desires.

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 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.

Waste – No figures will be enough to describe the wanton destruction and misuse of resources, processes, and 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, inappropriate products – products they do not need nor can afford. In Bangladesh, it was once said that the bulk of the vitamins brought 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:

Manipulation – Probably one of the greatest behavioural changes 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 peoples’ behaviour through advertising and promotional tactics that border in certain industries, on the criminal and immoral – offering bribes, from ball pens to women. This 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.

What Can We Do About the Violence, this Waste, this Manipulation?

I like today to share with you what organised consumers, what is called the “consumer movement”, can and is doing about such issues.

The consumer movement is about five important things.

First, the consumer movement is about people, people who care about society from a very special perspective, a perspective that concerns every single human being man, woman, and child. This perspective is about ourselves as consumers, buyers and users of goods and services, produced and provided both by commercial and government sectors. It is about the availability and often in the Third World the non availability of these goods and services. It is not just about the cost of living but more often the cost of survival! It is not just about value for money but more so value for people.

Secondly, the consumer is about power – the power of ordinary people to organise themselves collectively to serve as a countervailing force to promote and protect their interest as consumers and jointly act against those responsible for the violent, wasteful and manipulative actions against us. Power also to change the structures that permit this violence, this waste and this manipulation.

Thirdly, the consumer movement is also about human rights – the right to a decent life with dignity, the right to organise ourselves to protect our interest. In particular, it is about seven consumer rights – the right to have our basic needs to survive met efficiently and equitably, our right to safety, our right to redress and compensation, our right to representation, our right to adequate information, our right to consumer education, and our right to a healthy environment.

Fourthly, the consumer movement is also about the environment – about a sustainable earth. We not only must be concerned with serving and protecting the insides of our bodies, our “inner limits” but also to be concerned with the “outer limits” of mother earth – a powerful, complex and yet fragile and exploitable structure. This structure gives us the opportunity for a good life but it can also be destroyed not by peoples’ needs but by peoples’ greed, ignorance and carelessness. Consumers must as much be conservors.

Fifthly, the consumer movement is also about justice, about the way in which political, legal and economic systems are organised to bring about a just, fair and rational basis for living together.

These five pillars, I believe are the basis on which to judge the relevancy, competence and success of the consumer movement. Today these five pillars are very much an integral part of the work of the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) – work that has taken us at the global level to deal with the power of transnational corporations, the possibilities that lie with international institutions, and the development of global citizens networks.

We have been involved in the baby milk issue, issues relating to the pharmaceutical and with pesticides. To deal with the issue of dumping of banned and severely restricted products we have initiated a global citizens network called the “Consumer Interpol”. This network is a rapid information exchange and investigative system among citizens groups about such products and coordinates global action around the issue of dumping.

IOCU now links the work of over 120 consumer groups in some 60 countries at every stage of development and in every continent. Through the new networks of citizens groups we have helped to create namely the International Baby Food Action Group (IBFAN), Health Action International (HAI), the Pesticides Action Network (PAN), we are associated with hundreds of consumer, community action, development, environment, women’s and trade union groups that take our work to millions of ordinary people – from mothers who boycott Nestle products because of the way the company has been marketing artificial milk to babies, to doctors, who boycott Ciba-Geigy products for its association with one of the worst drug disasters of all times caused by the drug clioquinol.

The Work of Consumer Groups has Made a Difference

There is now an international code for promoting and protecting breastfeeding and Ciba-Geigy have recently announced they will withdraw the oral preparations of the drug clioquinol all over the world.

We hope through our work through “Consumer Interpol” and the other citizens networks to reduce if not eliminate the violence, the waste and the manipulation that characterises so much of our society.

We shall do this in ways that are as humane as our ends.

I like to share with you five principles which I have found useful which provides a framework for action as responsible consumers. We call them in Sanskrit, one of the ancient languages, - 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 and 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 of 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 this 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.

In conclusion I like to leave you with these thoughts,

“If the people are asleep awaken them.

If the people fear to act give them courage by taking the first step yourself.”

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