MAY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 5
Consumers of the World Unite In Tokyo
by John Cavanaugh
Sixty kilometers northeast of Tokyo, Japan stands a haunting monument to the victims of crimes against humanity. Two artists, survivors of the nuclear attack against Hiroshima, have painted lifesize murals that retell the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Japanese invasion of China.
In the midst of this testimony to war stands a giant mural depicting violence from anther source: the private corporation. There the viewer meets the victims of Minamata, a city in southern Japan that became the focus of national attention when the Chisso Chemical Company dumped tons of mercury into its coastal waters during the 1950s and 1960s. The poisoning brought disfigurement, mental retardation, and death of hundreds.
On April 5th and 6th, 300 consumer activists met near this museum to consider a wide spectrum of issues related to the violence which has become a landmark of the modern corporation. Organized by the International Organization of Consumer Unions (IOCU), the conference was hosted by eight organizations of a rapidly growing Japanese consumer movement.
Under the leadership of its current president, Anwar Fazal of Malaysia, IOCU has become a potent force in coordinating consumer activities in areas where transnational corporate behavior renders local or national action ineffective. In the same way that they avoid labor unrest by shifting capital across borders, multinational corporations can export products banned in one country to unwitting consumers elsewhere.
Plenary sessions and workshops at the conference discussed many of these products, and campaigns to control them. Major topics included:
Other sessions focused on testing, education, governmental regulations, and trade in hazardous products. IOCU is coordinating a Consumer Interpol, consisting of organizations in 30 countries fighting the dumping of hazardous products, dangerous technologies, and toxic wastes.
Numerous participants encouraged IOCU and the consumer movements to extend debate and campaigns beyond traditional consumer concerns. Over half of consumers in most developing countries fall outside multinational marketing networks. As a member of the Consumers' Union of Japan pointed out, "supermarkets in Manila sell a variety of Japanese food products, but many of them are out of reach of most of the people who are paid only $4.00 a day." At the same time, impoverished people are often the victims of the development strategies of their governments, which too often are geared to meet the needs of multinationals.
IOCU members also discussed building coalitions with other groups in their societies. Consumer groups, in their struggles against corporate abuses have found natural allies in workers groups, environmental organizations, womens groups, and churches. To counter the impact of corporations that are multinational, the consumer movement has realized that it must supplement strong local action with new alliances that are equally multinational in scope.
It should therefore come as no surprise that within the last six months, scathing attacks against IOCU have been launched by the Heritage Foundation, the Wall Street Journal, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick (see MM, January 1983). Consumer issues - not to mention consumer and labor solidarity - have no place in the global system these conservatives so vehemently defend.
John Cavanagh, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, is co-author of The World in Their Web: The Dynamics of the Textile Industry.