This week the Congress of the International Organization of Consumers Unions will hold its world convention in Hong Kong. From dozens of countries, rich and poor, capitalist and socialist, will come hundreds of delegates to advance the conference’s topic which is “consumer power in the nineties.”
No one can claim that this conference will focus on mostly trivial consumer abuses. The topics under discussion for action include infant formula, tobacco, food and drug safety, pesticides, the effect of international trade agreements on domestic consumer protection, the connection between consumer abuses and environmental damage (ozone, tropical forests), energy and the need to use the latest technology for global consumer networking.
Already, existing networks on pesticide traffic, tobacco control and infant formula abuses are showing the way. In the tobacco project, connected consumer groups are pressing for bans on advertisements and free samples, along with more explicit labeling and action by public health agencies of various nations.
The adversaries are multinational corporations and their political allies in many countries. In some nations, the problem that looms the largest is the absence of freedom of expression and action by consumer groups. And in the eastern European and Soviet republics, the problem is how to get started, including obtaining mundane equipment such as fax machines and office computers.
Increasingly, consumer groups are realizing that their concerns define the ultimate success of economic activity. Though conventional measures of an economy’s progress are usually gauged by production and selling statistics, an economy that can be booming by such yardsticks can mainly be making the rich richer at the expense of the poor. Japan is a good example of how basic living standards such as good housing and reasonable food prices can be kept from millions of Japanese in the midst of prolonged economic growth.
Anwar Fazal, the Malaysian dynamic leader and organizer of Third World consumer groups, is seeking to enlist a high energy, new generation of young men and women who will see the critical lever that consumer perspectives and actions on the economy con have in redirecting economic activity toward peoples’ needs
The rise of giant multinationals extracting the basic mineral and forest wealth of poor nations, pitting one country against another to secure the last drop of economic advantage form its workers, and the cornering of raw materials into tight cartels, present formidable obstacles to any programs of economic self‑ reliance, much less independence.
Fazal cites the. Chinese proverb, “If you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time.” He then adds an ironic tale of the modern world: “Consider the people of the South Pacific. They and their ancestors have fished for centuries. What use is their knowledge against the Japanese, the Korean and the Taiwanese who ravage their oceans with miles of drift nets; The Americans who use their islands and waters as dumping grounds for toxic wastes and deactivated chemical weapons; and the French who continue nuclear testing?”
It is clear that new mechanisms to develop consumer organizations around specific abuses that often transcend national boundaries are needed. Especially as governments continue to subsidize business, they should be required to pass low‑ budget laws to facilitate the banding together of consumer through check-off opportunities carried by the billing envelopes of banks, insurance companies utilities and other sellers.
Substantial access to television and radio for consumer and other citizen groups should be secured. After all, the public airwaves are part of the commonwealth of property for all people. Corporatist values selling products, many of which are overpriced or harmful, need counteraction by consumer protection values over the public’s airwaves in areas of nutrition, medicine, pesticides and other goods.
Out of the Hong Kong meeting should come an ever stronger resolve to shape economic systems as if people mattered. Economic democracy gives meaning to political democracy.