Who’s Watching Your Back?
Part 1: You, The American Consumer
Sitting with my fellow campers beside a bonfire on a crisp Wisconsin summer evening long, long ago, I had an out of body experience. Girlish voices joining in plaintive harmony, the words drifted upward along with the curling smoke. Our song, the smell of the pine needles carpeting the campgrounds and making a fragrant canopy above, the crackling fire, the brilliant stars- all came together in a veritable feast of the senses. I felt attuned to our connectedness to one another and to the natural world around us. The moment was exquisite, fleeting and hard to recapture.
In the past several generations, our extended families have been dispersed and our mobility has reduced our sense of community. We have become divorced from nature and isolated from one another. Interdependence has somehow come to be seen as a sign of weakness. Ironically, the more ‘civilized’ we have become, the more we are limited to our own individual and meager resources.
But while we no longer need the pack to stalk and kill our food, we surely do need one another for security and protection, not to mention emotional support. In no other place do we find safety in numbers more than in the marketplace.
Today, manufacturers are insulated from their consumer base with many layers. All too often, production has been outsourced overseas, customer service is nonexistent, and it is difficult to obtain quality and safety product information . Product advertising is more like group brainwashing to convince the public to buy products they can easily live without. Recalls are exceedingly rare; when they happen, it is invariably only after enough victims have already suffered death, disfigurement or debilitating illness from a faulty product. Civil litigation, product liability cases, and class action suits are time consuming and often prohibitively expensive. Companies with deep pockets and platoons of lawyers easily defeat consumer legal actions.
Several Examples of the Marketplace in Action
Recently, we experienced the largest recall of meat in US history – 143 million pounds – because the Humane Society obtained a video showing slaughterhouse workers processing cows, possibly diseased, that were too sick or weak to stand. This meat was sent to school hot lunch programs. The USDA’s undersecretary for food and safety was quoted as saying "We are very confident in the safety of the food supply."
Neither the slaughterhouse nor the government are watching your back. Where does this leave the American carnivore? Should we inspect all of the meat packers’ operations ourselves? Just how would we do that?
The hugely popular Ford Pinto of the ‘70s is a textbook example of Big Business putting profits ahead of safety. Ford rushed the Pinto into production to combat stiff competition from abroad, slashing the 43-month process to a mere 25. A faulty design left the fuel tank vulnerable in a rear-end collision. This flaw was discovered before production had actually begun but, because the assembly line was already tooled, they decided to go ahead anyway. According to documents presented in court, Ford had calculated that at $11 per car, it would be less expensive to handle the inevitable lawsuits than to fix the problem. A number of people were killed or badly burned when their fuel tanks exploded upon impact and they were trapped inside. “The barbeque that seats four” resulted in lawsuits that ultimately cost the automaker hundreds of millions of dollars and the recall of millions of Pintos. Ironically, a safer fuel tank design existed and was already in use in the Ford Capri, but was discarded for the Pinto because of strict guidelines for maximal trunk space.
Like NASA’s subsequent Challenger disaster, Ford’s Pinto experience confirmed that manufacturers rarely take actions that cost them more money if they don’t absolutely have to, even in matters of safety. As Lee Iococca, president of Ford and captain of the Pinto project, famously claimed, “safety doesn’t sell.” Iococca and Ford certainly weren’t looking out for you. They were looking out for themselves.
The American Consumer: How We Choose What We Buy
How we spend our money says a lot about who we are and what we value. How do we choose what we buy? We look at quality, features and, of course, price. With big-ticket purchases, the process becomes more complicated, and the quality of the service department becomes an important factor. We spend a lot more time with the service department over the life of any big ticket item than with the salesman who sold it to us.
For big ticket items, I like to do some research and for that, I head to the library and Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports is an equalizer, putting the consumer on a more level playing field with the powerful manufacturers and retailers. L.L. Bean still fully guarantees its merchandise 100% for as long as you own it. This gold standard for customer service is an endangered species nowadays. “You bought it, it’s yours. Now, whaddaya gonna do about it?” is what you’re more likely to hear upon voicing a complaint. That is why we all need someone to stand up for the consumer.
Consumer Reports (CR) has been a household name for decades. Consumers Union (CU), which publishes Consumer Reports, describes themselves as:
An expert, independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves. To achieve this mission, we test, inform, and protect.
Consumers Union is now the largest independent consumer testing lab in the world. Their command center is a state-of-the-arts complex in Yonkers, NY, with 50 labs for investigating various consumer goods. Fifty-five cars are tested each year at a separate, 327-acre compound in Connecticut.