A new organization, Consumers Action for Empowerment, was launched last Friday through the initiative of several health organizations, in coordination with professional groups (physicians, pharmacists) as well as community organizations, mainly from urban poor areas.
Consumers Action will initially tackle the issue of cheaper medicines, a choice that not only reflects the health background of its founders but also the priorities of their community organizations. One of the members of the new coalition is an organization of kidney patients, and their representative spoke at the launching ceremonies about living day to day and seeing fellow patients die because they could not afford the medicines.
I was asked to deliver the keynote address where I referred back to a column I did two years ago, “Wanted: Consumerism,” which reviewed the history of consumerism, with a focus on the Philippines. In the 1980s and 1990s, my work with health NGOs involved establishing linkages with the International Organization of Consumers Unions. We have had no lack of consumer groups, but the good ones have gone dormant. It’s easy to set up a new consumer organization, but I’ve been pushing for a new consumerism, one which I hope this new coalition will formulate.
I came up with seven points for this new consumerism, really intended as challenges for Consumers Action. I’ve rearranged some of the points, combining others to come up with a discussion more appropriate for a column:
First, a new consumerism must be independent of commercial interests. So many of the product reviews we see today in print media and the Internet are actually “sponsored” through free trips, free samples. No wonder the reviews tend to be glowing, with “negative” criticism confined to the most superficial aspects, e.g., a limited range of colors to choose from.
Second, a new consumerism must be political, not in the sense of being tied to politicians but of engaging in advocacy, i.e., pressuring for change in public policies and laws. “Political” too means an awareness of “political economy”, i.e., the pricing structure of consumer products. Drugs in the Philippines are expensive partly because of the high cost of advertising and promotions, and partly because of the lack of true competition.
Third, the new consumerism must be multi-sectoral, which means linking up with other causes, from environmental protection to the rights of indigenous communities, and even to prevention of cruelty to animals. Consumer education would need to provide information on all these causes.
I worry too about the growing class-based gap among NGOs. Right now we tend to see organizations clumped around two extremes: those with mainly an elite membership from the upper, chattering classes that have never-ending symposia and talk show appearances. On the other end, you have huge mass-based organizations that cannot quite get into mass media even if they are able to mobilize for rallies and protest actions. A strong consumer organization will need to combine the two and walk the talk.
Fourth, the new consumerism must take up issues that affect the majority of Filipinos. One problem I find in many consumer organizations in other countries is that it takes on issues and products that are mainly for the upper classes. I still remember one of the first consumer magazines in the Philippines and a product review where they actually counted the number of sheets in several brand names of toilet paper. I have to say I was quite fascinated, and impressed by the work that was put in, but when you think about it now (including my awareness of the primacy of the “tabo” [water dipper] over toilet paper in the Philippines), perhaps that kind of review shouldn’t take too high a priority.
Access to medicines is a good start. While the problem affects all classes, its adverse effects are directly correlated with income, i.e., the poorer the family, the greater the negative impact of the lack of access. Besides medicines, there are many similar consumer issues, with their terrible effects on the poor, waiting to be addressed. I mentioned cell phones, which even the poor now have, and how consumers are constantly being cheated with dubious offers, bad service, and high costs of calls and texts.
Fifth, the new consumerism must deal with essentials, with what’s most needed. This is especially important with campaigns for pharmaceuticals. I would hope Consumers Action doesn’t campaign for cheaper glutathione (a skin whitener), but I wouldn’t mind seeing a campaign to challenge the claims made for the product. The World Health Organization has a list of essential medicines which governments should give priority to, “essential” being medicines that are needed for the most common and serious health problems.
Sixth, and this may sound ironic, the new consumerism must be “anti-consumerism.” Traditional consumerism emphasizes getting more for your dollar (or peso), but the new consumerism will include many instances where “less is better.” For example, cheaper medicines could mean people taking more unnecessary medicines unless the consumer groups campaign for the correct use of medicines. That might include not using medicines at all. Anti-cold remedies, for example, are not considered essential; they needlessly drain household budgets, even creating problems (for example, antihistamines in the cold product cause drowsiness), when all that might be needed is paracetamol for the fever, lots of fluids, and adequate rest.
In other countries, the push now is for sustainable lifestyles, with a bias for products that do the least harm to the environment. That could interface with other considerations. For example, a preference for local goods would be not only nationalistic but also eco-friendly. (The further away the source of a particular product, the more ecological costs involved because of transportation and the consumption of fuels.)
Finally, a new consumerism must be ready to come up with alternative economic strategies tackling the supply side. With medicines, for example, we badly need cooperative-style or community-managed pharmacies that will have access to “market intelligence,” meaning we should know where we can get low-cost, good-quality medicines. This might even mean looking overseas for suppliers.
For other products, the new consumerism must encourage fair trade, helping consumers to link up directly with producers, for example, farmers for rice and other agricultural products, and with small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs.
Alternative economic strategies must include tapping into the new information technology. This might turn out to be one of the most daunting challenges, competing with the high-budget advertising and promotions of large corporations and their brand of consumerism.
Consumers Action for Empowerment is at 35 Examiner St., West Triangle, Quezon City, with phone number +632 9298109.
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