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close this bookPartners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1999, 85 p.)
close this folderPart 2: Toward civil regulation
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe Political Dimensions of Corporate Environmentalism
View the documentNGOs and the Politics of Pressure in a Globalizing Economy
View the documentFrom Producer Politics to Consumer Politics
View the documentBeyond Legal Versus Self-Compliance
Open this folder and view contentsThe Case for Civil Regulation
View the documentThe Potential of Civil Regulation for the South
Open this folder and view contentsGovernmental Policy Frameworks for Civil Regulation

From Producer Politics to Consumer Politics

It is widely understood that worker unrest with factory owners and other capitalists in most Northern industrialized countries at the turn of the last century led to the establishment and legal protection of trade unions and a democratic political force for workers. This was an incorporation of worker demands that served to head off the kind of revolutions against capitalism that occurred in some other countries. Critics of capitalism argued for the development of a “producer politics” where workers unite in order to control capitalist access to labour. The social democracies that emerged from this period embodied the notion that capitalism worked best if there was a counter-balancing force to capitalists through strong government and trade unions: capitalists needed the workers while workers, it was argued, needed the capitalists.

This social democratic system has led to, or coincided with, a huge expansion of many economies during the twentieth century. At the close of the century the balance of forces embodied in this system has been lost. Governments pursuing neoliberal policies have largely rejected the social democratic model, rolling back the state both internally and externally by promoting international free trade. Trade union power and influence have also declined. The result is that global business does not have an effective counter-balancing force of globally organized producers. Increasingly the offer of the lowest pay and working conditions wins the capitalist investment.

Meanwhile in most Northern countries, work has changed. People are changing jobs more frequently than before. Family members no longer do what their parents did. Personal identity is not determined so much by one’s work but increasingly by how one spends one’s money and spare time. Thus the political issues of our time are leading to different outcomes. In Western industrialized countries, environmental concern has not led to workers uniting to demand better corporate performance, but consumers uniting to do so. Whereas the establishment of trade unions and powerful political parties incorporated the workers movement, the establishment of NGOs has incorporated the environmental movement. Usually supported by financial donations and voluntary labour, NGOs are the organizational expression of “consumer politics ”.

Whereas producer politics gained its power through controlling access to labour, consumer politics gains its power through controlling access to customers. Corporate boycotts and direct action protests are the confrontational outcomes of consumer politics, in contrast to the strikes and lock-outs of producer politics. Business-NGO partnerships are the co-operative tools of consumer politics, in contrast to the business-union deals of producer politics. Whether consumer politics can exert the same counter-balancing force as producer politics did in the past is still open to question. Business needs both workers and consumers. Consumers and workers both need business. The power of the worker resulted in a dialogue between employer and worker organizations. It seems that the power of the consumer will result in a dialogue between business and NGOs (consumer and environmental groups).

The scope for genuine environmental dialogue comes down to power and influence. Certain groups of consumers (and their advocates) do not have the same power as other consumers. Consumer power is directly related to spending power. In consumer politics it is one dollar, one vote - not one person, one vote. This poses major problems for people with little, or no, consumer power: citizens of Southern countries have far less of this political power than their counterparts in the North. At first sight, this suggests that there are fundamental constraints on the ability of consumer politics - and therefore civil regulation - to ensure business responsibility for environmental protection in the South.

However, in consumer politics, as with producer politics, we must remember that power is not gained by an individual’s worth but through collective action and collective bargaining. Thus co-operation and camaraderie between civil society in the North (especially consumers) and in the South (including producers) may be able to deliver the necessary counter-balance to international business and create a favourable socio-economic environment for sustainable development. We return to this point later.