Swankin & Turner
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in Washington, D.C. since 1973

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The Consumer Movement: Voting via the Wallet
Excerpt from Megatrends by John Naisbitt, 1982

"Consumerism is the economic expression of the American Revolution."

That is the way my friend Jim Turner explains it. Jim wrote The chemical Feast: The Nader Report on the FDA and is on of the leading consumer experts in the country. In the summer of 1981, he made a presentation to a group of Trend Report clients about the future of the consumer movement. Jim's arguments convinced me that the thrust for participatory democracy is the ideological backbone of the consumer movement.

Two of Jim's key points about the consumer movement are important to restate here. First, consumerism is not a new movement; it is deeply rooted in American history. Second, consumerism will increase during the 1980's with the distinct possibility that it will become extremely militant late in the decade.

A few words about each point.

The basic premise of the American Revolution is that power ought to flow from the bottom up (that is, from the people up) rather than from the top down (from the King down). that is central to American values whether you are talking politics or economics. Adam Smith recognized that when he wrote in Wealth of Nations, "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of production."

Jim concludes: "Consumers are to economics what voters are to politics."

What is behind the idea that consumer militancy will emerge in the late 1980s? After all, haven't we been hearing fewer complaints from consumers of late?

Jim argues, and I think it makes a lot of sense, that, although consumers appear less militant, it is only because they have stopped asking the government for more regulations. Producers often misunderstand this as meaning that consumers are content, Jim argues. The truth is that consumers, along with everyone else, have only given up on the government's helping them. They are still frustrated, and consumerism is already reemerging in the marketplace.

Jim points to a 1977 Lou Harris study, "Consumerism at the Crossroads," which estimates that producers have approximately ten years, perhaps less, to begin including consumers in the corporate decision-making process--or face a virulent new strain of militant consumer action.

In other words, the time is now for corporations to accept the notion of participatory democracy as a model for consumer relations policy. Remember the key question in participatory democracy: Are the people who are being affected by a decision par of the process of arriving at that decision?

How should business apply the participatory notion to producer-consumer relationships/ And what will its effects be? I think there are three critical points. First, the participatory principle will transform the relationship between producers and consumers. Second, many producers remain strongly resistant to the consumer movement. third, producers have everything to gain and nothing to lose by incorporating consumers into the corporate decision-making process.

Transformation is not too strong a word for what the participatory democracy idea would do to producer-consumer relations. That is because traditionally consumers and producers meet only at the point of purchase, and not before. When a corporation meets regularly with an informal consumer advisory group, it is providing access to the corporate decision-making process long before the point of purchase. Not that the corporations will always go along with its consumer group's recommendation; that is not the purpose of participatory democracy. Only that the consumers will be part of the process of arriving at that decision. The key word is process, and the result is definitely transformation.

For some reason, perhaps fear of losing control, too many corporations that should know better are terrified of this whole idea. Although many large companies at least pay lip service to consumerism, others, some of which are my clients, are having none of it. To say they are resistant is a dangerous understatement. They do offer, however, totally rational arguments to fight off opening up the corporate decision-making process to consumers. For example: Corporations do such a good job in market research that active consumer contributions are superfluous.

It is difficult to understand this attitude. For, in reality, producers should be eager, it seems to me, to engage consumers as early in the production process as possible. I do not think it an oversimplification to state that producers can only become more successful by learning how better to satisfy consumers. Even if corporations sincerely believe market research is successful, why deliberately close the door to more informal contact with consumers? Perhaps corporations re simply scared because they do not understand participatory democracy. It does not mean consumers will make corporate decisions. Remember, being part of the process doesn't mean controlling its outcome.

David Swankin / Jim Turner / Betsy Lehrfeld / Chris Turner / Consumers for Dental Choice / NISLAPP

contact: tamara@swankin-turner.com

contents copyright 2011 by Swankin & Turner