The 15 March 2011 saw consumer groups across the globe celebrating World Consumer Rights Day. To mark this inspiring occasion, former CI President, Professor Anwar Fazal, gives a fascinating account of what consumer action means to him.
Professor Fazal will be addressing the theme of consumer empowerment as a keynote speaker at CI's World Congress, 3-6 May in Hong Kong.
Some 3,500 years ago, the Hittites of Anatolia, which is now in Turkey, had a consumer code relating to food matters. This code had two principles:
'Thou shall not POISON thy neighbour’s fat' – i.e. food should be safe and wholesome.
'Thou shall not BEWITCH thy neighbour’s fat' – i.e. that there should be no cheating or misleading.
These two principles apply as much today as they did then.
The consumer movement is today a world-wide movement, a movement that is active in every continent and in countries in all stages of development. It is a movement that is concerned not only with fair prices and better quality of goods, but also with a whole range of public interest issues that bear on the consumer interest, an interest we all share because we are all consumers. It is not just about choice but also about needs and justice.
The earliest United Nations involvement is by Mr. M. Ganji, Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights who aptly stated in his 1975 report that “People must know and assert their rights as consumers, if they are to get the maximum benefit from the development process.”
The movement further attracted the attention of the United Nations through a resolution of the Economic and Social Council adopted in August, 1977, which stated that the “benefits of development measures aimed at raising the standard of living and improving the quality of life of the people of the world would be enhanced if they were accompanied by adequate measures for the protection of individual consumers.”
On 9 April 1986, 25 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Guidelines for Consumer Protection” by consensus through General Assembly resolution 39/248.
The International Organisation of Consumer Unions (IOCU) (now called Consumers International), played a pivotal role and this paper expounds on a strategy framework that involved 'rights' and 'responsibilities'.
The ‘Rights’ Approach
The systematic elaboration of the rights of consumers was first inspired by the US President John F. Kennedy’s historic message to the US Congress on March 15, 1962. In that message, the US President had defined four basic rights of consumers – the right to safety, choice, information and to be heard.
In 1974, the newly established IOCU Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific received a small seed grant of US$500 from the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to develop consumer education materials. As the first and newly appointed Regional Director, I felt the need for a 'rights' approach and decided to do a series of posters on consumer rights as my flagship for my advocacy work.
I had noted that already by that time, two more consumer rights had become accepted among consumers especially as a result of advocacy in Europe – that of right to consumer education and consumer redress.
Further, with the historic 1972 Stockholm World Consumer Congress held after the historic United Nations World Conference on the Environment, IOCU had become increasingly concerned with ‘Green’ issues and I added “the right to a healthy environment” as the seventh right.
The eighth right, that of ‘having consumer basic needs met’ was enunciated in one of my first major speeches as the newly elected President of IOCU on January 2, 1979 at the opening of the pioneering first international workshop on “Consumer Education through Radio” held at the Asia-Pacific Institute of Broadcasting (AIBD) and funded by the government of New Zealand through the efforts of Consumers Institute, New Zealand. The idea behind this right came to me from the ‘basic needs’ approach that was then being promoted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The first time the eight rights were altogether accepted as a whole at an IOCU international meeting was at the Association on South East Asean Nations (ASEAN) consumer protection seminar held in Quezon City (the Philippines) from 1-4 October 1980 where the ASEAN Consumer Protection Declaration and Programme of Action was adopted.
In 1982, as President of IOCU, I felt the 'rights' approach needed greater popular mobilization efforts and proposed that 15 March be adopted as World Consumer Rights Day; this is now an annual global celebration. From then onwards, these eight rights, which are listed and elaborated below, have been adopted as the CI Charter of Consumer Rights:
1. Basic Needs: The right to basic goods and services which guarantee survival: adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and sanitation.
2. Safety: The right to be protected against the marketing of goods or the provisions of services that are hazardous to health and life.
3. Information: The right to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising or labeling. And the right to be given the facts and information needed to make an informed choice.
4. Choice: The right to choose products and services at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality.
5. Representation: The right to express consumer interests in the making and execution of government policy.
6. Redress: The right to be compensated for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services.
7. Consumer Education: The right to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be an informed consumer.
8. Healthy Environment: The right to live and work in an environment which is neither threatening nor dangerous and which permits a life of dignity and well-being.
The 'Responsibilities' Approach
Our experience is that we cannot rely on business to take adequate measures. We cannot also rely entirely on governments, who have various pressures on them. The first task is for consumers to be individually strong and effective because self protection is the ultimate protection. We must, through our own competence and vigilance, initiate action for the protection of consumers. We cannot assume that others will do it for us.
It was useful to have a frame of reference for consumer action and in this connection I launched the following five principles (inspired and suggested as “four cardinal principles” by Prof. Heiko Steffens of Berlin at the 9th IOCU Congress, held in London in 1978), which now provide a framework for a holistic strategy for the consumer movement:
CRITICAL AWARENESS – our citizens must be awakened to be more questioning about the quality of goods and services.
INVOLVEMENT OR ACTION – our citizens must assert themselves and act to ensure that they get a fair deal.
SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY – our citizens must act with social responsibility, with concern and sensitivity to the impact of their actions on other citizens, in particular, in relation to disadvantaged groups in the community and in relation to the economic and social realties prevailing.
ECOLOGICAL RESPONSIBILITY – there must be a heightened sensitivity that consumer decisions impact the physical environment, which should only be developed in a manner that promotes harmony and conservation and we must fight against the degradation of this most critical factor in improving 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.
The realization/internalization of the above principles, both “rights” and “responsibilities”, or what we may call the CHARTER for CONSUMER ACTION will not be an easy one. It will require commitment, integrity, hard work and consistent, competent and creative vigilance.
It will require also the synergetic cooperation of governments, socially responsible businesses, academics and media as we must never forget that all of us are consumers!
Professor Anwar Fazal is the Director of the Right Livelihood College, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He was President of the International Organisation of Consumers Unions (now called Consumers International) from 1978-1984. He is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, popularly called the “Alternative Nobel Prize.”