Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Consumer's Union

I believe that people in general, regardless of if they’re conservative, liberal, or other, share certain ideals. We all want clean air and clean water. We want to be treated well. We want the products we buy to be safe and work as advertised. Today we look to government to regulate industry in order to achieve those ideals, but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, government isn’t the best means to those ends. Instead, we need to take it upon ourselves to get what we want. Yet the magnitude of this task makes it seem impossible. We, as individual citizens, simply don’t have the power to stop bad business from polluting our water, from selling dangerous toys to our children.

In order for individuals to have an impact on the behaviors of businesses, we need two things: conviction and information. The former is 100 percent within our control. We either have the strength to do what we believe is right, or we don’t, and thus will have nobody to blame but ourselves if the world goes to crap. The latter is much harder to come by, but this is where the consumer’s union comes in.

Imagine the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on steroids. The GH Seal tells consumers that a product is safe and that it works as advertised. The Consumer’s Union seal would be similar, but it would encompass a wider range of qualities. A product with the Union seal would not only be safe, but the company that makes it would be eco-friendly, would support worker’s rights, wouldn’t discriminate against gays, and on and on. The union would strive to have companies put the Union seal right on the product’s packaging, so that as people stand in the store trying to decide between brands, they would see the seal and know they’re getting a quality product from a company they can trust.

That’s the gist of how the union would function. However, it could also take on other roles, such as educating the public on how every dollar spent effects the world in a small way, and how shopping in a Union backed store or spending a little more on a Union backed product can be better (for the environment, for the local economy) than going for the cheapest product every time. The Union could also take on the role of Consumer Advocate, helping people fight against companies that have mistreated them. And the Union would recognize that we’re not only consumers, but also workers, and it could help people make the companies they work for behave better. (And every time someone buys a Union-backed product, they’re also making a statement about how they as a worker want to be treated, and how they want their company to behave.) The Union could even become a source of venture capital for new businesses that want the Seal right from the start.

Everyone who buys things is automatically a union member. We participate by favoring products that have earned the seal, and thus, via the power of our dollars, encourage all businesses to strive for Union approval.

Most importantly, the union becomes the means by which we all choose to take responsibility for the world around us. We’ll know that every dollar we spend changes the world for better or worse, and hopefully, as the Union Seal appears on more and more products, we’ll be able to take satisfaction in knowing that we’re changing the world for the better.

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