La Coalizione degli Consumatori Svedese 
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Consumers,  Powerless Victims or a 
Force for Change?



Speech delivered by Bengt Ingerstam, Secretary-General of Swedish Consumer Coalition (Konsumenter i Samverkan), at the Conference ”Dolly and the Bean” in Luleå 19-21 February1999. 

First of all I want to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak at this very important conference. Especially as the consumer perspective very seldom is regarded as important, but often as irrational. 

I also want to compliment the organisers for having arranged this important conference, although certain actors on the market have choosen to stay home.

During 1985 I contributed to starting up the first real consumer organisation in Sweden, called Consumer-Forum (Konsument-Forum) and I´m still the chairman of that organisation. In 1994 the idea came up to create a broader platform, a kind of network between Non Govenmental Organisations, NGO´s, with a modern view on our way of living and our prospects on our future, often called the alternative movement. This form of alliance was formed in 1994, with Consumer-Forum as a hub, and got the name of Swedish Consumer Coalition (Konsumenter i Samverkan). Today we are 17 member- organisations and 4 supporting organisations and a number on local groups and individual members. We are consequently a member-based consumer-organisation, without links or dependence of trade, producers, unions or political parties. We have an extensive site on Internet.  Much effort has been put into developing this site, as we believe that this is our future way of reaching people, the members and the other actors on the market. This new possibility probably gives us as consumers a new chance to be a force for change.

As NGO´s we have recently had the experience of using the Internet successfully. One example is when USDA made official their proposal for common rules for organic production, including e.g. genetically manipulated crops, irradiation and using  sewage sluge as fertilizer. For the first time USDA opened up the process to the public, making it possible for citizens and their organisations to comment. Over 300.000 answers came in and the American secretary of agriculture, Dan Glickman, pulled back the proposal to re-elaborate on it. He admitted that there had been an unexpected amount of reactions. This was only possible thanks to the new modern communications technology.

Another very important success was manifested when over 600  NGO´s mobilized the opposition against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments under OECD. The negotiations broke down and may now restart under WTO.

We are just at the end of the era of the information society (when consumers had to be informed through PR camaigns) and the beginning of the era of knowledge for everyone, thanks to the development of new information technology and access for everyone to facts.  The other players on the market are not used to this, but have to  learn to pay more attention to the opinions and demands of the citizens as consumers.

Still we can hear from political leaders, scientists, corporative leaders  that consumers don´t know enough so we have to inform them, educate them to change their opinions. Dan Glickman said time ago: ”don´t listen to the consumers, we have to inform them that  GMO-soya is safe and good for the American industry.”

Only a few days ago the British prime minister Tony Blair stood up and ”informed” his people that genetically modified foods are so well controlled and there is no risk to eat it. The British people very well remembered when their former minister of agriculture told them that beef is safe and demonstrated in TV when he gave his daughter a hamburger to eat. All of us know how much his promises counted and the British consumers have learnt from that not to have too much confidence in their leaders. Tony Blair should have learnt that lesson. Now the reactions instead are wild in Britain these days. Consumers demand everything to be labelled to avoid buying it. 

From the beginning the growers of soy-bean and their organisations mixed the beans in order to make it impossible to avoid GMO-beans. Now it hits back on them, the market will be smaller. More and more retail chains change the recepies for the products and eliminate the soya and maize. We are happy here in Sweden that we have got an agreement between trade and industry that oil from soya and maize shall be labelled and that the retail chains are so sensitive for the demands from consumers. It is since earlier difficult to find such oil in the shops, even GMO-free.

What can be learnt from this is very important. Don´t fool around with the consumers and don´t threaten consumers democratic right to make their own choices. Futhermore, the more information given to consumers about ”non-risk”, the more they want to avoid it. Non-risk is not a sales argument! Try to meet the consumers needs instead, listen to the market.

In the past citizens/consumers have been the victims many times. 
Some examples: 

Grain was treated with methyl mercury, not for the benefit to consumers (birds and  the buyers of bread). Science and the suppliers didn´t now better at that time, today we all know.
The famous DDT was invented and was supposed to save the world, got the Nobel Prize and then it was forbidden. We still suffer, together with our friends-consumers, the fishes and other animals from former mistakes.

Technology developed and found the way of splitting atoms. We got man-made radioactivity and so called ”cheap energy”. Some entrepreneurs, not knowing better, invented radioactive water to sell to consumers.  Bless them because they did not know what they did. Still there are interests that want to introduce irradiation of foods, to eliminate bad hygenic conditions in production. We all know that consumers don´t want it, and it is anyhow not a big success.
PCB was once very much in use, now we know better. I´m old enough to remember, and as an engineer I have been educated with the philosophy  of overoptimistic and enthusiastic hope for a prosperous  future, not taking into account any awareness of consequences.

Now also a few words about economic misstakes.

The bank-crises that we passed some years ago - who had to pay for the mistakes? The people, the civil society always pay. Politicians do never pay, only when they can use tax-payers money. Now the banks earn more money than ever, increasing the fees for their services. Who is paying for that? Consumers as always.

It is time now to clarify what is a consumer and what role do we have in the civil society.

Production ends when a consumer starts to consume. When the sun is shining and water is at hand, some saved seeds and a piece of soil with various ”ingredients” are available, production can start, vegetables or rice or grain can grow. Some of this production goes to a kind of consumers like pigs, hens, cows a.s.o. that give us milk, eggs and meat to consume together with bread and vegetables. The energy that has been accumulated in this way now we call ”products”.  Through my mouth I can now send down to the stomach the energy, the products, food, hydrocarbonates, fat and protein, and out of my mouth I return to nature water and CO 2. The energy I have saved for my own purpose. I can now sell my energy as ”work” and get compensated by something we call money. The consumers in that way make the conserved energy available again and convert it into money. 

Some of the money we spend  buying goods, thus creating the market and more jobs and increase the turnover of business. The more we buy and consume the more growth we will have. That is exactly what many scientists have spent much of their time to discover, how consumers can be stimulated to buy more. Through marketing and PR and by creating habits and lifestyles consumption has increased significantly during the passed 100 years.

Another part of the money, that we get from our work, we have to deliver to the state. It is called taxes and the politicians use it to get the community to function. 

A third part of our money we have to save in pension funds. It´s an invention, a system created during the last 100 years and the funds have grown, and will continue to grow, to unbeliveable amounts. These funds are now also used for speculation. It has also to give highest possible returns, promising us the owners always higher payback as pension  and in that way getting the controle over our money. 

Many crises in the world have been created by speculations with consumers own money. On the contrary some crises have started from a lack of confidence from consumers, like the Japanese economy. The Japanese people increased their savings for security reason and consumption decreased. We all know how the rapidly growing Asian economy suddenly dropped. 

For the Russian consumers the situation is quite different. From a system of a planned economy, where consumers had nothing to say, they tried to convert to a market oriented economy, but without products that met the consumers wishes. Inflation made their money less worth and when consumers do not have money, less products will be sold. Less employment and less groth will be the result.

Recently our prime minister Göran Persson said that he hoped consumers now will gain more confidence in the Swedish economy and start to buy and increase their consumtion and in that way increase production and decrease unemployment, helping the economy to be even better.

We, the consumers, have a very important role to play, we are the market and we put the money in circulation. We decide what we will buy and to whom we will give or lend our money. We have been the victims long enough but now we have new possibilities to make our voice heard and get a more decent balance on the so called market. Isn´t it logical that we have the right to be informed about what we intend to buy, when the selling part think it is logical that we pay for it? Therefor labelling is an important issue.

Now, to put an end to my presentation, I want to say a few words related to the subject of this conference, from the consumer horizon.
I can´t hide my astonishment over all the mistakes that have been made in the process of introducing genetically manipulated foods on the market. All possible and impossible mistakes have been made. Efforts from the USA have been made to mix the crops, just to make it impossible to keep the lots apart, hoping that the opposition will calm down, once consumers discover that they will not get sick or that it is impossible to turn back. The attitude from certain companies have been that everything is allowed to increase profit and earn market positions. Involvement of political leaders have been used, talking to each other about trying to calm down the opposition from consumers, because ”it is important to the US industry” has not increased the confidence from consumers for the new foods. 

The strategy to always talk about non-risk, trying to convince consumers that it is safe, not remembering the serie of earlier mistakes, has failed. It is not a question of non-risk for us consumers. The important question for us, that have to pay the bill, is value, benefits and advantages. That means the price we have to pay has to be compared with the risk we are willing to take. Until now we havn´t seen any advantages, so the non-existing-risk is not an argument for spending our money - buying. The arguments that  ”it is the most controlled food on the market”, just don´t communicate that it is safe but that it is so controlled because there may be risks.

The question of patents and the question of labelling are two reasons for consumers to say ”no thanks”. We want to make our own choice, using our democratic right to choose, without beeing threatened. We are also very clear on the question concerning the power over seeds, crops and foods and the related threat to biodiversity. That means that  we don´t want a world ruled by monopolism and transnationals safeguarding their profits and future through the inbuilt dependence on chemical solutions of the organic life.

Knowledge and modern communications will give us consumers a different role in the civil society in the future. Also in the Treaty of Amsterdam the rights to organize, represent ourselves and to be a part of the decision-making bodies in the community is stated. So, I am hopeful and I am honored to represent consumers. 

Bengt Ingerstam
 

To say NO sometimes is to take responsability!

 
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