The greatest power the consumer has is the power not to buy

The greatest power the consumer has is the power not to buy: Anwar Fazal

By Biju Negi

“The essence and face of the consumer movement is not so well known because people associate it with the labour movement”, says Anwar Fazal, the renowned consumer rights leader.

Anwar Fazal (69), a former President of the Consumer International (CI – formerly International Organization of Consumers Unions – IOCU), has been one of the prime movers of nearly a dozen local and global citizens’ movements, namely Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), Pesticide Action Network (PAN), Health Action International (HAI), and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). He has initiated several popular global anniversaries including World Consumer Rights Day (15 March), World Wetlands Day (1 February), World Breastfeeding Week (1-7 August) and World Migrants Day (18 December).

Currently the Director, Right Livelihood College and concurrently Visiting Professor, Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia (Penang, Malaysia), Anwar is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (1982), the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) “Global 500″ honour, the Mother Earth News Hall of Fame and the Gandhi-King-Ikeda Peace Award.

This year on 20 April 2010, at its 50 years celebrations in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Consumer International in association with the Federation of Malaysians Consumers Association awarded Anwar its first ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing him as “the most influential figure in the history of the international consumer movement”.

Biju Negi of Beej Bachao Andolan interviewed Prof Anwar Fazal in Penang (Malaysia), for d-sector.org.

Q: In your booklet published recently on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Consumer International, the first sentence states that 50 years ago, the Consumer International was born, giving life to an idea whose time had come. What do you think? Its time is still there?

A: It’s an eternal one. In fact the sentence you mention is taken from the poem I composed in 1985 on the occasion of 50 years of the Consumer Union of the United States. So, you see the issue has an eternal relevance. One thing we have to remember, humans will always be consumers. People forget that we are consumers of many kinds of things – we are consumers of things that we have to purchase. We are also consumers of things that we are entitled to which may be government services; and we are also consumers of what would be described as free products given to us by god although they are also now becoming commercialized.

For instance, the air that we breathe. Now you find ‘oxygen clubs’ where you actually pay to get a bout of oxygen. Or water – just see how it has been commercialized, to the extent that our natural water sources and systems have been totally brutalized and destroyed by all kinds of mechanical systems. We have a situation where even companies like Coca Cola and Nestle are now selling bottled water and find there is a lot of money to be made in just selling water, because for these you pay hundreds and even thousands times over what you would be paying if you just drank water from the tap. And because, according to studies conducted, there is no material difference between the bottled and tap water, what do Coca Cola and Nestle do? They make “magical” improvements to the water, by adding tinges of colour – orange with a little bit of flavour; purple, with a little bit of flavour! The coloured water – it becomes a symbol of luxury and fashion. This is how, we as consumers, are exploited.

All this is done very methodically through advertising. They play on our fears and insecurities – like the pharmaceutical industry – to get us to use their products. Or they lure us with a false sense of pleasure, prestige and status. These companies know that if they can influence and capture you early and get you addicted, then the addiction becomes a part of your personality and to unlearn is very difficult. I always say it is ten times more difficult to unlearn than to learn.

Q: Do you think part of this exploitation of the consumer is in someway also related to the word – consumption and consumerism. The connotation of these words pertains to someone who takes, uses or receives.

A: Very much so. But interestingly, while the word consumerism itself signifies the whole culture of wanting, buying and consuming more and more, this word was also used against consumers and consumer movements by the right wing capitalist groups in the USA. If you look at the early history of the consumer movement, the earliest consumer organizations were all very much linked with the labour and justice movements. So the capitalists labeled the ‘consumer movement’ as consumerism, to have it rhyme with the word communism and say that these organizations were anti-market.

The first UN study done on consumer movement was by the International Labour Organization. It was called the “Study Guide for Consumer Protection”. And it said, workers have two ways of improving the quality of their life – one is, they can ask for more wages so that they have more income; and second, they can become good consumers, and make sure they don’t waste their money, but use and spend it wisely, and make sure that their money is not stolen – referring to the credit system, particularly the hire-purchase system that provided you a loan to own a product in advance. And while you paid back the loan installment monthly, with an interest rate, which may be 8-10% – on the principal sum, so that the effective interest rate that ended up paying was 40%.

“Every one of us can change the world. We just decide that we will do what we can, wherever we are, with whoever we can. We, as individuals just decide we will not buy those kinds of products, we will not engage in those kinds of services; we will live simply, we will help others, we will help the environment.”

Q: So there was a sense of awareness on getting the best value for your money?

A: Not just that. One was also targeting goods that were not produced under fair conditions. This essence and face of the consumer movement is not so well known because people then associate it with the labour movement. Similarly, the consumer movement also developed a concern over the effect of the production process, and the consumption process, and the waste process after consumption, and the impact that had on the environment.

The first editorial in the publication of the Consumers International (It was then known as International Organization of Consumer Unions – IOCU) stated that we must not just be looking at a product for its use, but that we must be equally concerned with the conditions under which that product was made. Equally concerned! We talked about value for money but also value for the environment, reflecting an awareness of the workers’ conditions, and also of the effect on the environment.

In the first annual consumer report of the Consumers Union (of USA), for as many of the products as it could, the report provided an evaluation of the companies in terms of their labour commitments. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the Third World particularly, very often where the consumer movements were young and environmental movements were practically non-existent, very often Consumer Movements took all these elements. When I was President (of the Consumers International, then International Organization of Consumer Unions, from 1978-1984), we decided to take up the issue of pesticides, and brought together environmental groups, trade union groups, church groups.

Then we went on to the breastfeeding issues, bringing together all kinds of groups, religious groups, development aid groups. We worked around pharmaceuticals and created Health Action International. All these movements brought together people from such diverse backgrounds and those movements were actually the faces of this new wave of the consumer movements, with a consumer consciousness that drew on the three values – for money, for people, for environment. The consumer movement therefore can then give that holistic, all embracing kind of activist leadership that is very often needed in this kind of effort.

In the early 1980s, there was actually a catalogue that was called “Shopping for a Better World” that had this kind of seven or eight social and environmental agendas or criteria – Is this company linked with the military? And if company is involved in military and defence, don’t support it. Is this company supporting apartheid in South Africa? Don’t buy its product. The greatest power the consumer has is the power not to buy.

“Unfortunately, we now have a global system that media-wise, financial-wise, political-wise acts totally as a juggernaut to capture people, or capture the economic system in such a way that you become its captive – Captive of the capitalist system in which your mind is conditioned to certain, I would never call them values, to certain conditions which are aimed to profit the companies, and to stimulate greed, to stimulate craze for fashion and waste among the people.”

Q: So, the movement is consciously addressing issues outside the per se consumer thing?

A: My definition of what would be per se the consumer is such a big one that it is not outside anything. I think that any consumer organization that doesn’t take this larger view, going beyond value for money to value for people and value for the environment is only a fragmented organization. It is not a holistic organization. A really credible consumer organization will take all these three dimensions to be part of its soul.

Q: But the challenges are still there.

A: Indeed. We have movements all over the world not just for ethical consumption but also for voluntary, simple living; going back to Gandhian ways. Buy what you need and not according to your greed. But unfortunately, we now have a global system that media-wise, financial-wise, political-wise acts totally as a juggernaut to capture people, or capture the economic system in such a way that you become its captive – Captive of the capitalist system in which your mind is conditioned to certain, I would never call them values, to certain conditions which are aimed to profit the companies, and to stimulate greed, to stimulate craze for fashion and waste among the people. With the result, we have now reached a stage where conspicuous consumption has become the norm and is encouraged.

So, we still have a long way to go. The period of Reaganism and Thatcherism broke down many consumer protection laws. Product safety laws that were obtained after decades of struggle were dismantled – corporations were given tremendous power, markets were so-called liberated – liberated for exploitation, not liberated for the people. And so, we have more people hungry in the world today than there were before. So, we’re actually fighting a system. The very fundamental issues for the consumer movements continue to remain relevant.

We have a major struggle against capitalist globalization process, regarding accountability, businesses without morality, but the spread of Internet gives us new kind of power. It is amazing how you can reach everybody, any time, anywhere. Take the example of the wonderful “Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard. How simply and powerfully it deals with the issue of waste. But the consumer movement must learn to use this new media to great effect because many of these new kinds of movements will be where consumer movements, environment movements, women’s organizations, church organizations, the workers’ organizations, all of them can collaborate and then we will be able to see all the dimensions of the issue; and the relationship we build in organizing that campaign, the links we build and the knowledge that we build then can be transferred to many other campaigns.

Q: You have mentioned Gandhi. Who are the other people who have inspired you?

A: Many, many. I think every single person who has done good work, has inspired me. Not just the people who made it high, but the hundreds of people all over the world who made the change. At times, we forget little people doing little things in little places in the world. They have actually made the difference. It’s their stories that are very important, but very often these little stories are forgotten.

I hope more and more people will remember them and share their stories. I believe, one small person doing a small thing in a small place can make the change. It is important that we, as an individual person, take decision. Every one of us can change the world. We just decide that we will do what we can, wherever we are, with whoever we can. We, as individuals just decide we will not buy those kinds of products, we will not engage in those kinds of services; we will live simply, we will help others, we will help the environment. What we buy will impact on human beings in the correct way, impact the environment in the correct way. Then we can see a better world.

(For more information on Anwar Fazal go to www.rightlivelihood.org and www.anwarfazal.net)

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