The Multinational Monitor



Consumers Take the Offensive Against Multinationals

An inteview with Anwar Fazal, President, International Organization of Consumers Unions

Anwar Fazal is perhaps the most influential figure in the worldwide consumer movement today. The first person from the Third World to become president of the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) -an independent, non-profit group that links the activities of consumer organizations in some 50 countries - Fazal over the past four years as president of IOCU has galvanized the consumer campaign against multinational corporate abuses.

Fazal is a founder and a prime mover of the following global consumer networks, which represent what he calls "a new wave of the consumer movement:"

  • CONSUMER INTERPOL - a global citizen-alert system on hazardous products, processes and wastes;
  • IBFAN - International Baby Food Action Network, a coalition of action groups active in the infant formula campaign;
  • HAI - Health Action International, a coalition of action groups working on pharmaceutical issues;
  • PAN - Pesticide Action Network, a global coalition of groups working on pesticide issues.

Fazal, 40, has been associated with the consumer movement at the local, national and international level since 1968 and has written extensively on the subject. In 1976, he undertook consultancy work in consumer affairs with the Government of Mauritius and Hong Kong Consumer Council. In 1977, he served with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a consultant and drafted a "Code of Ethics for the International Trade in Food."

He is also a founder of Consumers Association of Penang.

On May 22, Multinational Monitor's Matthew Rothschild interviewed Fazal in New York, where he was meeting with member groups of IOCU and discussing with other U.S. consumer and environmental groups the workings of the newly-launched Consumer Interpol.

How is the consumer movement faring in the Third World?

A great deal of exciting consumer protection activity is going on in developing countries. People are beginning to become aware that as consumers, certain rights do belong to them, and that they can organize to become a power against the other power structures within society - particularly government and big business, and very often a partnership of the two.

Two-thirds of IOCU's [International Organization of Consumers Unions] membership is now from developing countries. A decade ago, there was hardly a consumer group in Brazil; now there are 62 consumer organizations in Brazil. In Mexico, there is the National Institute of Consumers; they've done a lot of work on nutrition, and they have 10,000 messages a day going out on the 500 or so radio stations across Mexico. The consumer movement has come a long way.

Why has the consumer movement grown so much over the past few years?

The consumer movement has become very much more directly involved with the realities of the marketplace. Third World consumer groups are concerned with issues of survival; they can see the ways that wasteful consumption has destroyed society, and they are directly concerned about economic and political structures in their society.

The whole power of transnational corporations has brought many of these issues forward.

How do multinational corporations affect Third World consumers?

Multinationals have expressed their power in three areas. The first is the whole area of manipulation and the use of advertising. There are certain kinds of wants and desires that are harnessed by powerful corporations into being identified with certain products the corporations make - cosmetics, the whole junk food industry, soft drinks, for example the way in which thirst has been translated into Coca-Cola. The classic case is the way companies were able to get people to use infant formula and give up breast feeding.

The second area of multinational power is that they are engaged in a trade of violence. Corporations have been selling products that are harmful, drugs that are restricted, pesticides that are banned or restricted in the United States. This area of violence is one very important reason why Third World consumer groups have become concerned.

Third, multinationals are in fact taking away from Third World consumers their small resources, their purchasing power. These companies are promoting a lot of wastage. For example, multinationals are very actively engaged in alcohol and tobacco sales in developing countries.

These three elements - manipulation, violence, and waste - have opened up the eyes of public interest groups in the Third World.

People in Third World countries had a vision that big company executives were like priests, that these people had a certain morality, a certain responsibility, because they came from higher levels of civilization and from more powerful strata of society. In many of our Third World societies, you have feudal systems where you respect people who have power; you respect people who wear the suits. So multinationals were expected to be deliverers of great things, like priests were at one stage.

But people were disappointed because more and more they became aware that they were being manipulated, that these multinationals were engaged in a trade of violent goods, and that multinationals were draining their resources.

How is it possible for consumers to extract concessions from multinational corporations?

I think there are fantastic opportunities for us to bring about change. Who would have thought, five years ago, that you could have got the whole infant formula industry to stop advertising their particular product and that consumers could initiate this whole process of demarketing that is going on now at different levels?

Who would have thought that was possible?

But it happened. It happened through a new sense of global organizing among consumers.

We learned that we had to build coalitions; we had to work with women's organizations, with development action groups; we had to learn to work with trade unions, with young people; we had to make our work exciting.

The infant formula campaign gave us a model for global organizing. It involved people at the community level in protest against a Nestle outlet, for example, and at the international level enabled us to take on directly the U.N. agencies and the trade associations of multinationals in a way that was never before possible.

When you are planning a consumer protection campaign, how do you evaluate the best strategy for helping the consumers that are being taken advantage of? Is it better for the victims for you to organize internationally or domestically?

There is this very famous story: You go in and save a drowning baby; and then there is another drowning baby, and you go in and save the second drowning baby, and then a third, a fourth, a fifth. You are so busy saving drowning babies that you have no time to look up from the river to see that there is a man there throwing babies into the river.

For many issues, one has to look at the source of the problem. We cannot involve ourselves in finding and stamping out fires when there is someone going around lighting those fires.

What is the source of the problem? Who is throwing the babies into the river, or lighting those fires?

Global economic structures are often the source; multinationals are very often the source. Elite groups in developing countries that have the economic power can be the problem.

One has to look at the sources. Some of the solutions then will have to link up with where those sources are. If the source for the problem of hazardous dumping is in the developed countries, then there must be mobilization of consumer groups in those countries to put pressure on the companies.

At the same time, national actions can be inadequate to deal with multinationals, because the companies operate outside national boundaries. This is where the U.N. agencies have some global responsibilities to deal with the whole world as a marketplace.

How much resistance does the International Organization of Consumers Unions meet from companies that are ill-disposed to your campaigns, and what shape does this resistance take?

From the company side, you can get threats of legal action, pressure on newspapers because of the advertising revenue companies provide, and attempts to influence the consumer movement by heavy propaganda and public relations efforts.

Companies exercise pressure by providing funds particularly to professional organizations - this is a very constant and serious problem in the Third World. They fund medical meetings, pharmaceutical meetings, meetings on research, meetings on pesticides.

In the Third World, how do you expect independent political action from professional groups if they have this very unholy link, if they are fed on a continuous basis by industry, particularly multinational industry?

What new organizations or campaigns are developing in the international consumer movement to counteract the power of multinational corporations?

There's a new face in the consumer movement and part of this new face is a new way of global organizing. One of the new networks that IOCU has established is the Consumer Interpol - a global network to warn people about hazardous products: pesticides, pharmaceuticals, all kinds of wastes, dangerous toys, clothing, and electric products.

How will this Consumer Interpol function?

The International Organization of Consumers Unions will send out alerts to citizens' groups around the world on products that a government regulatory authority has identified as a hazard. For example, if the U.S. government decides to ban or restrict a particular product, this information will be relayed by our U.S correspondent to the global network. We will then send this information throughout the world. We hope that there will be no country in the world that will not be covered by our alert system.

We will also supplement this Consumer Alert with a regular bulletin on product safety, which will take up those issues that are generic in nature, but that aren't immediately life-threatening. It will be a citizen's bulletin that will give a continuous flow of information on this general area of dangerous products and the issue of dumping.

Will the Consumer Interpol undertake any actions, aside from disseminating information?

Where we feel there is a global dimension, the International Organization of Consumers Unions will then come in to organize a global campaign. If a specific company is involved, we will make sure that as much effort is made at the source of the problem as is made at chasing the particular products in different parts of the world. We will go to the factories where these hazardous goods are made, and to the company that manufactures them. With this kind of a Consumer Interpol, we can give a multinational response to the multinationals.

In late May, another consumer organization was formed, called the Pesticide Action Network [see story on page 19]. What was your role in the formation of that group, and what is the Pesticide Action Network going to do?

IOCU, together with an environmental organization, the Friends of the Earth Malaysia, hosted a global meeting on all the various aspects of pesticides. This meeting was held in the Third World; it was held in Penang, Malaysia, and it had a very strong Third World involvement.

What came out of the meeting was that we must work together to stop pesticide proliferation: that was the theme, in three words.

What are the dangers of pesticide proliferation?

The way pesticides are promoted and marketed in the Third World by agribusiness and chemical companies is unconscionable. People die, you know. The director of the toxicology branch of the Thai ministry of agriculture says that just in Thailand alone one and a half million people have been poisoned by pesticides in different degrees.

We hope that the Pesticide Action Network can get global citizens' efforts going to change this. We hope to issue an international code on the marketing of pesticides, and we will be targeting specific companies and products for actions.

What other new consumer organizations can you point to as a positive step towards increasing consumer power against multinationals?

Last Year in May, Health Action International was founded by IOCU and Buko from Germany, which is a federation of groups interested in developmental issues in the Third World. Oxfam is also very much involved, and so is Social Audit, a small public interest group in England.

One of our focuses is on the World Health Organization, where we are working on the development of an international code for the marketing of pharmaceuticals. Industry has a code that is a travesty, and we think that the World Health Organization should start work on an independent code.

Another focus for Health Action International is targeting drugs for special action, like our actions on Lomotil that were undertaken by Social Audit. [After campaigning against Searle's marketing practices, Social Audit got Searle to agree in September, 1981 to change its marketing practices for Lomotil - see MM, December, 1981.]

How do you see the power relationship between multinational corporations and consumer groups changing in the years ahead?

The 1980's will see a global consumer movement that is the strongest ever in history. With our new way of global organizing, and with our new power, multinationals will have to change on a significant level. There will be major changes in the pharmaceutical industry, and there will be major changes in the pesticide industry. They have no choice.

Why will multinationals have no choice but to change?

We have now got muscle globally to deal with them in a way that we never had before: power to organize globally, to organize boycotts, direct actions, shareholder actions, power to embarrass them for engaging in unconscionable activities.

At the same time, the struggle with multinationals is going to be a very hard one. The companies are going to organize even more to deal with this new threat of the international consumer movement.

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