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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

World Trade Summit: Consumer Power

Air Date: Week of

Author and environmental policy analyst John Ryan of Northwest Environment Watch makes some observations about the power of consumers to shape the global economy with prudent buying decisions.


CURWOOD: With all the debate surrounding the World Trade Organization, commentator John Ryan says there's been very little talk about some of the most powerful players in the global economy.

RYAN: Sometimes I wonder if the hubbub over the WTO isn't a bit off-base, with protesters storming the stage at a recent forum, changing, "Stop corporate greed!" Jeez, you might as well protest continental drift. (Claps and chants) Earthquakes are really chronic. We've got to stop plate tectonics. I mean, hello. Corporations exist to make money, and I doubt that is going to change in the new millennium.

But we can define where and how greed can operate. To be sure, in this global era, governments are losing their sway over corporate behavior. Multinationals can outrun the law in one place by seeking browner pastures elsewhere. And the frighteningly powerful WTO is definitely helping them.

But no company can run from its customers. You see, the secretly powerful player here is you and me. Consumer demand fuels the global economy, and consumers' tremendous powers can be used to reshape it. For example, by buying organic coffee instead of the regular stuff, you've just stopped pesticides from being sprayed thousands of miles away. And you've told farmers in agribusiness that it pays to protect the land. By buying an energy-efficient appliance or vehicle, you voted for high environmental standards instead of a race to the bottom. By shopping for local or low-impact or, best of all, second-hand goods, you're helping build an economy that respects the earth.

Now, I'm no angel in all this. I did a little self-exam this morning. My pants were made in Malaysia, my shirt in Hong Kong, and my shoes in Mexico. I feel like Free-Trade Barbie. Or maybe Global Sweatshop Ken. Sometimes it's hard even for a do-gooder like me to find products made with human rights or the planet in mind.

And the WTO wants to make it even harder for us to choose wisely. It's declared things like eco-labels to be unfair restrictions on trade. But even if the WTO succeeds in restricting our right to know, consumers still have tremendous influence. You don't need an eco-label to know that the best kind of gasoline or beef or electricity to buy is less of it. We all know that riding a bike on a short trip instead of driving an oil-guzzler designed for elephant hunting is a coup for local self-reliance, and for our planet's climate.

Yeah, it's critical that activists rein in the WTO's arbitrary powers. But don't let the Battle of Seattle mislead you. When it comes to globalization, some of the most important choices are made as close as the check-out line of your local store.

CURWOOD: John Ryan is with Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle. His new book is called Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet.



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