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
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
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.
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
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
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
To say NO sometimes is to take responsability!