For Private Greed Or Public Need?

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Troth Wells and Dexter Tiranti
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editors: Troth Wells and Dexter Tiranti

Consumer Power:
for private greed or public need?

The furious pace of buying and selling in the marketplace often serves to distract consumers from thinking about what genuinely satisfies them. Dexter Tiranti argues that both consumers and consumer movements should see beyond the contents of the shopping basket.

Redressing the balance: how the consumer groups see their role.
Illustration: Bill Sanderson

WHEN I was a boy I spent most of my summers on Brighton beach: swimming. reading, throwing stones into the sea. Now because of the oil fouling the pebbles, it’s impossible for my kids to go there. The pollution comes from tankers in the Channel sluicing out their holds with seawater. This is illegal but a lot cheaper than official cleaning methods. In a small way I have been responsible for depriving my kids of this natural playground. For I use a car, more than strictly necessary, and look to buy gasoline at the cheapest prices.

Private transport needs a lot of oil to be shipped in. And a host of private cars have an impact on that public beach. This translation of private convenience into public cost cannot be easily reversed. The beaches wouldn’t become clean if I sold the car. In fact in the short term the answer for me is a longer drive to cleaner beaches. And so the downward spiral quickens. Before long it will need foreign travel in fuel-hungry jets to find unpolluted sea shores.

This trade-off of consumer choice between private and public goods - the car and the clean beach is seldom acknowledged. And the connection is rarely made in consumer affairs. Yet consumption in the affluent societies where most New Internationalist readers live is about more than keeping body and soul together. It is about improving the quality of life... and our increasing number of personal possessions has inevitable repercussions on the world around us.

Consumer organisations conventionally confined their attentions to private goods - shopping basket issues like giving short-weight, adulteration and making false claims. Today. outside religious movements, these groups are probably the largest of the non-governmental institutions. They vary from the three million members of the American Consumers’ Union. to the 650.000 members of the Consumers’ Association in Britain and the 210,000 of the Australian Consumers Association. Yet the task as they see it, is enormous too. They have to counterbalance the weight of manufacturing industry and to ensure that the consumer is sovereign in the marketplace. For a free market to operate fairly, buyers need unbiased information about the goods on sale.

This was why consumer groups began the comparative testing of products. The results were to guide members to their ‘best buy’. A secondary role was the representation of consumer interests on matters affecting public goods; campaigning to influence policies and laws which affected the marketplace. The promotion of Sunday opening for stores, for example, or attempting to sharpen up the competitive edge where monopoly price-fixing was suspected.

However the major consumer organisations operate from shaky foundations. They begin with a belief that the buying decision is independently arrived at. They also assume that the buyer will operate rationally to save her or his cash and maximise quality by shopping around in a competitive marketplace.

But of course people are not always rational. When an expensive German sports car is purchased, it might have a lot more to do with acquiring a status symbol than with buying the safest and most economic means of travelling from A to B. Indeed in our wealthy and perverted world, an expensive purchase might be prompted by nothing more than the status that is accorded to its price tag. When the ethos of a society is to spend, spend, spend, then the penny-pinching listing of comparative product information by consumer organisations becomes superfluous. Worse, it is boring. Consumers won’t make the effort to do research before buying. And probably they don’t really want to justify to themselves why they need more clothes or another stereo system.

Generally it is only the smaller, campaigning consumer groups and particularly those based in the Third World which attack the very real corporate control of the marketplace. Anwar Fazal twice president of the International Organisation of Consumers’ Unions, and Ralph Nadar the American corporate campaigner, have done more than most in spawning a variety of action groups to take on corporate malpractice. Such campaigners see expanding corporate power as responsible for most of what is wrong.

Corporations make the High Street punter pay for poor goods, worthless drugs, wasteful packaging and unsafe food additives. They can subvert our freedom of choice and denigrate women through deceptive and sexually suggestive advertising. Such people have attacked the corporate-induced violence of cancer from cigarettes, road casualties from unsafe curs, injuries from flammable fabrics, poisoning from, pesticide misuse, accidents resulting from substandard goods dumped in unprotected countries, and the killing of forests by pollution-inspired acid rain. It is a formidable list.

Yet many of these corporation critics still share a basic premise with the mainstream consumer organisations. They believe there can be such a thing as a freely competitive economy where producers will respond to consumer demand. This is one version of consumer power’. Ralph Nadar, for example, has cited a survey of the Federal Trade Commission which showed that where there was a near-monopoly of industry, prices were 25 per cent higher than where there were small competing firms. The implication is that breaking up industrial giants will reduce prices by a quarter.

But if greater competitiveness is seen as desirable for producers, that same competitive spirit will spill over into the private life of those same producers. Or are we to believe that our fair and free business executive, Mr A. Smith, will come home from the workplace and exchange his pinstripe suit for the mantle of a Mother Theresa? It seems unlikely. There are unpleasant implications for society whenever and wherever competitiveness is called up.

Many consumer groups also skate round the issue of the distribution of wealth and income. They feel that simply breaking up the corporations, and encouraging smaller profits and lower prices will somehow bring a fairer sharing of wealth. In reality such changes would be unlikely to affect the 32 million Americans living on or below the poverty line, or the 1000 million living in the underdeveloped world who lack basic shelter, food, clothing and clean water.

But the real Achilles heel of the corporate critics is that our materially high living standards in the West are owed, to a significant degree, to the very corporations they attack. They seldom explore larger issues of what to put in the place of growth and personal affluence. Perhaps it has to be that way, or their attacks could be written off by business apologists as ‘ideologically motivated’. But the New Internationalist has no such worries about being discredited in this way.

We should return to the central issue. If technologically sophisticated products are wanted at modest prices, the only way they will be created is through the production giants who have the wherewithal to conceive, research, produce and then sell the products. They can be privately owned corporations in the West or state-owned factories in the Soviet Bloc, the common denominator is size. The imperatives of such technology are spelt out by J.K. Galbraith in the New Industrial State. When the Ford Mustang was conceived, every tool on the assembly line had to be individually designed and made. After such major planning and tooling-up, for Fords not to have invested heavily in managing consumer demand for the Mustang would have been absurd.

The real enemy of competition is our preference for high tech ‘new’ products. These require substantial investment, which would not be committed unless there was a reliable market demand. It is very odd for consumer organisations to be testing and recommending compact-disc hi-fl systems and single lens reflex cameras on the one hand and yet be outraged by monopoly control of the marketplace on the other. It is also odd for radicals to attack manipulative consumer advertising that goes hand-in-glove with the conception and delivery of such technology unless they also denounce the lifestyle that goes with those products. As the song goes, you can’t have one without the other. If consumers do not like monopoly control over their spending habits, they have to ask that such technology not be produced.

To suggest to people that they give up much of the affluence and the convenient technology they have picked up over the last few decades, in exchange for a fuller control and say in the running of their own lives, might not be all that popular. Consumer groups which advocated such an approach might not be swelled by floods of new members. So all such organisations both large and conventional or small and radical find themselves in a dilemma.

Illustration: Gabor Benedek The present giant corporations have blessed us with more than increasing material affluence, Galbraith points out in The Affluent Society they have also commercialised our lives and tainted goods and services which were formerly free or owned by the community. Consumer groups seldom pick up on this. ‘The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-braked car out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art . . . They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night in a park which is a menace to public health.’ Contemporary advertising encourages the acquisition of private goods like the mauve and cerise air-conditioned car, at the expense of social objectives like litter free streets or uninterrupted views of the countryside.

Advertisers find it more effective to play on selfish, private interests (‘Go on. spoil yourself...’). If the advertising appeal is to act on behalf of others, for the communal good. it is more diffuse. The result is a continual commercial drive to urge those who have spending power to use it on themselves. It gives birth to the ME generation (‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it ...‘).

The strict distinction made by so many consumer organisations between private and public goods is flawed. The two are inextricably mixed. If everyone has a car, it can no longer be a quick and convenient form of transport: if everyone has private health facilities then they no longer offer a way of jumping the queue for hospital treatment; if everyone wears high fashion clothes, there will no longer be any status attached to them.

Private goods are linked to the community in which they are consumed. ‘Beyond some point that has long been surpassed in crowded industrial societies, conditions of use tend to deteriorate as their use becomes more widespread,’ points out Fred Hirsch in ‘Social Limits to Growth’. Where everyone stands on a chair in the stadium, no-one gets a better view of the spectacle. What we want individually cannot be achieved collectively.

The life portrayed in the glossy adverts is built on a lie, because it is built on exclusivity. As the late journalist Nicholas Tomalin remarked when cheap air charters were started to a distant, exotic country:

‘Now that I can afford to go there, I know it will be ruined.’

Economic growth has been seen by politicians and business leaders alike as the easy answer to needs for social justice and the redistribution of wealth and income. And economic growth has delivered on one dimension. Compound growth rates of two or three per cent a year have lifted living standards over a few decades sufficiently to alleviate the most severe income maldistribution. The present day blue collar worker enjoys a living standard equal to that of the most successful professional worker of the 1950s. Certain wants can be supplied. the luxuries of one generation are standard for the next and necessities for the third - witness cars, TVs. and washing machines. But we don’t live in a one dimensional world.

There is a built-in flaw to growth. It fails to deliver its full promise. The acquisition of goods does not bring increased social status and respect. People don’t advance up the rungs of the class ladder, it is the whole ladder which is moved upwards. The real ‘status’ goods remain as elusive as ever. Leisure land for hunting, fishing, shooting, and particularly for fencing off and prosecuting trespassers - is still not commonly owned. Access to the high-paid, high-status jobs remains as exclusive as ever. Our communities remain as unequal, unfair and unjust as they always have been.

What we have now is social poverty: the poverty of relative deprivation/ envy, isolation and loneliness, public squalor. This is vividly illuminated by the statistics on rising alcoholism and drug abuse, psychiatric illness and vandalism, muggings and soccer hooliganism, deteriorating public transport and decaying schools. The conclusion has to be that paradoxically our lives have been impoverished by the single-minded concentration on money and selfish acquisition.

To counter this depressing state of affairs will mean not just looking outward to the corporate giants and their social crimes. It will also involve looking inwards at our own consumption and ‘needs’. We should not just campaign against the social hierarchy of privilege and exploitation, but also move out of that pecking order ourselves. We have the privilege and the curse of living at an elevated material standard shared by only 15 per cent of the world’s people. To liberate ourselves from the vicious circle of increased need. increased consumption, increased work and increased commercialisation we must, if only partially and hesitantly, step outside the treadmill which disciplines us.

Do we have to spend so much, work so long and hard, economise on time-out for friendship, leisure and play? What about work-sharing and redistributing more of our private wealth? The discipline of the consumption system works by implanting more and more ‘needs’. We concentrate on bringing home the bacon, when we could be giving our time to others and our cash to causes working to redress the insane global extremes.

Meanwhile, if the consumer movement were to openly acknowledge that people’s wants are manipulated, if they recognised that sophisticated technology can only come from corporate giants, then they could intervene vigorously to suggest which types of spending are better or worse. Their campaigns might revolve around environmental resources, community costs or the moral implications behind any form of spending - private or public. Indeed they might argue for less consumption in its entirety as the way forward to a healthy and balanced industrial society. We could take similar action in our private lives too. Perhaps then my children’s children will be able to swim off Brighton beach.

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