Consumers: Who are they?

Just recently, one of my readers asked the question of why I write and comment on such a wide range of issues.

This blog post is tagged with:

Consumers Liberty Libertarianism Politics Consumer Activism

It was suggested that I should limit myself to talking about the minutiae of the law, because after all, that is what Consumers want to hear!

Needless to say, I couldn't disagree more.

I recently came across a quote from a Tim McClure, where he was reported to have stated:

"The biggest concern for any organisation should be when their most passionate people become quiet"

And so it follows, that for the last 13 years, I have been travelling along the Consumer road and have met some fantastic and inspirational people, all with the goal of bringing that Consumer story experience to the heart of those who can influence or take action on their concerns.

Whilst also on that journey, I have come to realise that many of the issues I deal with do not have an artificial boundary and in fact cross over into other domestic or commercial areas of concern. For example, with Carbon Monoxide in holidays (remember the Corfu CO case), you cannot escape the fact that on a domestic level, the very same issues affect home users both in the UK and Internationally. Equally, the issue of fumes on-board aircraft reveals the potential for Carbon Monoxide along with other toxins. But within the earthbound Carbon Monoxide debate, there is also the growing controversy of other toxins in fuel which is also another issue found on cruise ships, through their use of diesel and re-conditioned aircraft engines as their turbines. Into that mix is the question of National or International Regulation or Standards, that cut to the heart of what protects us as Consumers and as Employees.

My work brings me into contact with victims and survivors, but also a wider cohort of activist, trade union official and politicians from all over Europe and around the globe.

As I develop my work I have realised how quickly I am now called upon to discuss the day's events on the media, but that calling opens me up to a debate that simply does not rest in travel. The latest example can be found in the school holiday costs case, where a Father defending against a potential conviction for taking his daughter out of school, found himself in the High Court, where the local Authority were seeking clarity as to the extent of their powers in law. In the last few days I have not just been asked to comment on the legal aspects of the case, but also on the morality and responsibility of those parents taking their children out of school. I have also been asked to comment on the role of headteachers, their targets, free market principles, along with how politicians should respond to us first as Parents but latterly, what they should do about high holiday costs during the summer holidays; can you see why it is not possible to simply be a Consumer commentator and campaigner and just talk about the dust that surrounds the letter of the law?

The Law is a living breathing instrument and affects everything we touch or buy, where we work, how we relate to each other, how the Law provides us with protections or how we travel. To suggest that you can be a Consumer commentator and campaigner without injecting some passion into the subject matter and relate to real life experiences and what people are thinking or feeling, is frankly naive.

So I started to ask what do we mean by a Consumer?

If we follow the 'established' format, a Consumer is said to be:

'A person or organisation that uses economic services or commodities'; pretty dry really!

Another definition suggests that a Consumer is:

'[Someone] who pays to consume goods and services produced'; a bit limiting wouldn't you say?

There is a body of Consumer opinion that suggests that in fact the word 'Consumer' should be banned, because of the limitation on its definition. Some object to the phrase because it simply implies that all they do is eat and drink and that they are primarily responsible for destruction of local commerce or contribute to the world's diminishing resources.

I am not entirely clear what phraseology they would use to replace the expression 'Consumer', but I think that rather than ban its use, we as Consumers should simply not accept the commercial/political libertarian definition and seek to redefine how we see ourselves as ‘Consumers’ in this global economy.

When I consider my own work and the stories of the ordinary Consumers I meet and speak with, I see a collection of individuals who are linked by community, tax and social responsibility, who are passionate about a particular point that affects them at that moment in their lives.

I remember a few years ago I had a conversation with a leading light in the fuel lobby. I was trying to build a Partnership between him and others in the Consumer lobby. What was surprising was his response to my suggestion of Partnership; he refused to meet with this group or have anything to do with them. When I pressed him as to why he wouldn't engage, he simply stated that whilst they may have some valid points, they were far too political! I then asked him about the various groups within the Carbon Monoxide debate and again he refused to engage with several of the groups on the basis that they were too political!

It was at that point that I offered him my own opinion that a) it was wrong to dismiss any potential partnership and b) to suggest that their actions were too political was somewhat contradictory, given that we were both engaged at that moment in time with lobbying activities in the Palace of Westminster!

I also offered him the view that everything we do, everything we object to, everything we buy has a political element to it - it is simply the case that many Consumers choose not to engage because they delegate that 'power' to those they elect at the ballot box, many believing that they have discharged their duty, without further responsibility once they have posted their vote!

What is remarkable is that within the UK, there are many engaged and active Consumers, fighting against an injustice, either created by government policy or by an Industry so powerful, they manage to persuade a government not to regulate their Industry. Such activity crosses a wide frontier of consumables, from food to noise, environment, fracking, heating, toxins, employees facing unsafe working environments, landfill gas escape, unsafe holidays, disappearances from cruise ships – the list could go on and on!

In amongst this mix, is the current question of Europe and the wider political chaos knocking on our doors. Prejudice has now stepped aside in favour of fear and the very legal structure that ‘Consumers’ rely on is now is serious jeopardy of being lost. Frankly it doesn't matter what the issue is, each subject matter has an effect on individuals and communities and all contribute to the social cohesion that we have taken for granted over many years!

The commercial/political libertarian definition strongly suggests that as Consumers, we ultimately have a choice. In simplistic terms that may be correct if our only motivation is to buy a TV or a hamburger (what about the labour that produced the TV or the animal welfare issues?). Don’t you think that the simplicity of that economic model misses out on the fact that we are being imprisoned within that limited choice and not being party to the greater discussion in how for example we want our food produced, how we want our fuel to be made safer – it is as if we have entered into a deal whereby for expediency’s sake, we have abdicated our role as engaged citizens to the corporations and politicians?

In order to address that imbalance, I think we have to ask three very important questions about what it means to be a Consumer:

  1. Who are Consumers?
  2. What do they want?
  3. How are they changed by what they want?

In considering these questions along with my work with Consumers, I developed a definition of what I think it means to be a Consumer in 2016.

My definition of a Consumer is:

"A person who engages in personal and extra-personal events through commercial, social, media and political outlets, through the exchange of money, the non-exchange of money, ideas, experience and opinion. They are engaged in the consummation of product both tangible and intangible, in order to consume, experience or engage, with the ultimate goal of personal possession, contribution or to be a stakeholder in matters that either influence the Consumer's choices or environment or the choices or environment of other Consumers and Society as a whole. A Consumer is not bound by the status or limits created by Commercial and/or Political Libertarianism; Consumer Libertarianism does not suffer limits to its power and ultimately acts as the final arbiter in all matters that affects their Commercial & Political decisions and engagement"

Meaty stuff I hear you cry, but when you meet some of the people I have met, who with great emotion tell you of their unique experience, you can only come to the conclusion that the hi-jacking of the phrase ‘Libertarianism’ only serves one set of masters and they are not Consumers!

Is it any wonder therefore, in a sea of theatrical polarised opinion, there are Consumers out there, in some cases, risking all, to make their voices heard; I am privileged to play my part in helping some of their voices to be heard!

© Frank Brehany 2016 - All Rights Reserved (First Published on 18/5/16)