Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Are consumer groups heading for extinction?

Following the CIVICUS World Assembly, CI’s Luke Upchurch reflects on the relevance of consumer groups in a changing civil society.
Last week’s three-day CIVICUS World Assembly in Montreal, Canada was a heated, energetic affair, reflecting a civil society movement grappling with its place in a rapidly changing world.

This year’s event brought together civil society organisations from across the globe to look at defining a new social contract. Following Rio+20, Occupy, the Arab Spring and the EU/US economic crisis, many of the organisations present at the event were questioning the role and relevance of traditional civil society organisations - something the consumer rights movement itself must do.

As consumers turn to user-generated sources of information about products and services; as single-issue groups take on traditional consumer rights issues; and as online activism challenges the conventional thinking around what constitutes action, our movement is left wondering what it can offer the next generation of consumer rights advocates.

Replace ‘consumer’ with ‘citizen’ and this is a problem facing civil society groups at large, not just those concerned with consumer rights. As one delegate, @BonnieKoenig, tweeted:
“NGO/CSO leaders need to be open to dramatically changing their own organizations & operations to stay relevant.”

This theme of relevance and effectiveness was an unofficial thread throughout the event, and, despite the strong sense of camaraderie, delegates were often polarised in their response to it.

Many believe that the answer was to work more closely with corporations, to find mutual solutions in places where governments have so hopelessly failed. Others believe that direct action is the only way to effectively tackle social, political and environmental injustice. 


And everyone has an opinion on the mix of top-down/bottom-up solutions required.

As with most things, perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. We need energy, ingenuity, and determination to force change from below, and the consensus-building, multi-stakeholder approach that can open up global-scale change from above. 

This is certainly the case with sustainable consumption. I spoke on a panel that considered both the international and local-level changes needed to move us away from unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. 

While we need governments to incentivise green investment, and corporations to choice edit the bad stuff out of the commodity chain; we also need to change social norms and values at the individual and local level. These are just some of the pre-conditions necessary for the mainstreaming of sustainable consumption.

Many of the younger CIVICUS delegates - who volunteered some of the most constructive ideas for change during the event - would no doubt question this seemingly laboured approach. As @alexjamesfarrow tweeted during the event: #Youth are losing patience with this conversation. If we don’t change radically, #civsoc orgs today will be dinosaurs tomorrow.”

Alex may well be right, and he articulates it well in this video blog. But I believe traditional civil society organisations, including consumer rights groups, do have a unique role to play.

Digital campaigning

Just take a look at the Big Switch online campaign by UK consumer group Which?. They were able to use the collective bargaining power of nearly 300,000 consumers to negotiate huge savings from energy suppliers - a campaigning principle that can, in theory, be applied to anything, yet relies on the good name and campaigning expertise of a national consumer group to be effective. 

Another UK consumer group, Consumer Focus, has produced an excellent guide to how consumer groups can use digital technology to campaign and is well worth a read. 

At the policy and advocacy level our experience is vital too - it has been all too easy for governments and industry to say that the consumer just does not care enough about sustainability. 

But with no enabling infrastructure in place, and unsustainable products and services crowding the marketplace, it’s all but impossible for consumers to make green choices in many countries. 

Changes must be in step with each other: consumer rights groups must be there push for sustainable alternatives, and to ensure politicians and businesses do not hide behind nascent consumer demand. 

Whatever role consumer rights groups play, more often than not our biggest advocacy asset is trust - the trust that our members, supporters, and subscribers hold in our opinion, and the authority this affords us in the eyes of governments and business. 

As younger ‘consumer citizens’ are looking elsewhere for action on consumer rights issues, our movement needs to look at new ways to retain and earn that trust. Our future may well depend on it.

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