Consumer action matters

15 Oct 09 03:58PM EST
Post by Gordon Renouf

Whether it’s planning approvals or palm oil, fair trade or fair bank fees, everywhere you turn consumers and citizens are taking action to achieve change. People organise community action groups and sign email petitions, call talkback radio and write letters to companies demanding change. Action like this is the lifeblood of democracy, and one of the most effective ways to counter the interests of those that seek to exploit consumers.

Welcome to my new blog! I lead CHOICE’s advocacy and campaigns team, and part of my job is to support consumers to take action on issues that matter to them.

I’ll be writing about a few different consumer issues but the one I want to talk about most is how organisations like CHOICE can help consumers take action to advance their interests. I want to use this blog to highlight consumer action campaigns that have achieved change, and even the ones that didn’t work so well.

Consumer action and democracy

So what do I mean when I say citizen action is the lifeblood of democracy? We vote to choose our government – that’s one kind of action; but ever since modern democracies began to take off in the 17th century democracy has been about more than voting.

Having a conversation – the freedom to share ideas with fellow citizens – is a key underpinning of all citizen action, including consumer action.

It’s hard to believe that chatting in cafes and tea houses can change the world – but there’s a pretty respected view among historians that the coffee houses that sprang up in Europe in the 17th century were a key way in which ideas about democracy spread and gained popularity, along with the news of the day and the then newly acquired taste for the precursor to our double espresso.

Such discussion is essential for an effective democracy. We can talk over the fence, in the café, at universities and public events, through newspapers and other media – and now in every corner of cyberspace.

But it’s when this conversation is public – out in the open for all to engage in – that we start to see its real power. And one of the delights of CHOICE’s refreshing new website is that it’s now much easier for all consumers to join the conversation – whether it’s about the best washing machine for your situation or which political party will protect consumers from an uncompetitive banking system.

In the 1960s German philosopher Jurgen Habermas proposed the now widely adopted notion of the “public sphere” – the place where citizens use their “communicative power” to advance their interests against those of privileged groups. In more everyday language, US President Theodore Roosevelt’s first State of the Union address famously argued that getting information out into the public realm was a necessary first step to ridding the world of the “crimes of cunning” of the unregulated “industrial combinations” or “trusts” of the early 20th century.

Successful consumer action campaigns

Over the next weeks and months I want to highlight examples of effective consumer and citizen action. Here’s two to get us going – one a very successful CHOICE campaign, the other a current campaign being run by a smaller activist group. 

CHOICE’s FairFees campaign has saved consumers $500 million per annum in unfair penalty fees on credit cards and bank accounts. At its heart the FairFees campaign was based on thousands of consumers taking action using our online tools. More than 50,000 people used a template letter from our website to write to their bank reclaiming fees paid. Hundreds of consumers provided us with case studies which helped us understand the many ways that fees hurt consumers, and provided stories that helped persuade politicians and the media about the size and significance of the problem. And finally people told us stories about their success in reclaiming their fees– a success which inspired others to follow their lead.

Palm Oil Action aims to pressure food companies to stop using palm oil in their products on the basis that palm oil plantations cause deforestation, leading to increased greenhouse gases and loss of natural habitat for native animals. They’ve organised consumer letter writing campaigns, petitions and street protests. They claim several Australian successes based on consumer action, in particular persuading KFC and Cadburys to switch from palm oil to less damaging alternatives. They’re now targeting Woolworths to encourage them to stop using palm oil in their home-branded products.

Our blogs are all about seeking your views. Do you have examples of consumer actions in Australia or elsewhere that have advanced consumers’ interests?


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