A Back-to-School Plan for Consumer Education

“But what can people do?” cried the hand-wringing veteran radio talk show host in frustration. He had just been through a fast-paced give and take with his very upset listeners about high prices, dangerous products and the abject refusal of politicians to stand tall.

The answer to that question is quite decentralized. Each person has to decide whether to develop consumer and citizen skills and join with other friends and neighbors into growing movements. The U.S. Constitution, it should be remembered, is very permissive about such initiatives.

To the extent that citizens have engaged such energies in the past, remarkable progress has resulted when compared with the relatively modest consumer mobilization. And modest it has been. Less than one percent of consumers can classify themselves as regular activists. The rest lump their complaints and grumble.

So clearly, the potential for consumer power has scarcely been tapped–a fact that is more appreciated by cowering officials and corporate managers than by many consumers. A focus is needed for mobilizing consumer awareness into economic and political action. Enter the consumer training clinic.

Imagine 500 to 1,000 consumers in exciting, informative and activating daylong clinics taught by skilled purchasers and citizen advocates. They would learn how to cut the family food budget while buying higher quality food. They would see how to shop for life insurance and often obtain their coverage for half the premiums they are now paying. They would chide their past neglect as they learn to obtain much higher interest rates for their savings from banks or other financial institutions.

As the day’s pace quickens, a growing insight about shopping would rock them into being the tough customers they always could have been.

Men are paying twice as much for brand name blades than for private labels that do just as good a job. Women are being taken by the pantyhose industry on too frequent trips to the wastebasket or trash can. Bread can be baked for less than 20 cents a loaf at home and they’ll know what ingredients it contains. They’ll learn basic self-health care and see fewer pills and doctor’s bills as a consequence.

Whetted by these specific illuminations, they would seek a broader plan of realization. Why not organize consumer cooperatives and decide what to sell to ourselves? Why not redefine consumption to be free of Madison Avenue and corporatist values that are based on uncritical addictions to junk products and fraudulent services? Why not produce more of what we consume–from passive and active solar energy to vegetable gardens and fruit trees? Or imagine what a broad cultivation of simple repair trades could do for the household.

There are corporate abuses, of course, which are beyond the reach of point-of-sale consumer skill or organized consumer self-reliance. The giant oil companies with their sway over Congress and the White House come to mind. The Hooker and Allied Chemical companies, with their poisoning of the land and water, are another case in point. These situations require consumers to put on their citizen caps and move into regulatory and political arenas. Effective skills in this area also can be taught at such citizen training clinics.

Since formal educational institutions from elementary schools to colleges rarely stress the development of broad-based consumer skills, the first impetus will have to come from consumers in cities and towns around the country who simply decide that they aren’t going to lump it anymore. Just such a move was made in Philadelphia this month when local groups came together for a day of intense consumer training.

Interested citizens who want to obtain more information about consumer training clinics and how they can start them can write to my associate, Gene Karpinski (P.O. Box 19404, Washington D.C. 20036), who assisted the Philadelphia effort.

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