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Consumer consciousness

12/05/06 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at a new form of consumerism, and how it can be put to work this holiday season.

(GILBERT) I saw a new phrase the other day, one I hadn't encountered before - "conscientious consumerism." Its use was tied to the fact that we're in the biggest shopping season of the year. We're bombarded by ads and newspaper flyers. Every store wants our holiday business. We're urged to spend, spend, spend.

"Conscientious consumerism" invites us to think twice about choices we make when shopping. Can we buy products that promote positive values? Products made here in Vermont? That would benefit our neighbors, and make the world a better place. The message is, you CAN make a difference through the power of the purse.

It's easy to dismiss an idea such as this - especially in the frenzy leading up to the holidays. But two cases from earlier this year make me think that consumers DO hold lots of power. These were cases where buyers were told that they couldn't have choices. Businesses insisted that they could dictate tastes. But consumers resisted - and won.

The cases I'm thinking about concern milk, and trans fats.

In both cases, consumers were told over many years what they were SUPPOSED to want. Milk with artificial growth hormones in one case, and foods with trans fats in the other.

The milk case goes back a dozen years, when the chemical BST - sometimes also referred to as "BGH" - was developed to boost cows' output. A lot of people didn't like the idea that the extra production was the result of the cows being shot up with a chemical - even though the chemical DOES occur naturally in cows. People wanted BST-free milk. A few dairies offered the option, but it seemed that consumers would eventually have to give in to the new technology. But consumer resistance to BST was widespread, and it continued. Finally, this summer, major milk producers in New England relented. They said that they would no longer take milk from cows treated with BST. Score one for consumers. Dollars made the difference.

The trans fat case involves Kentucky Fried Chicken. This fall KFC said that it would stop using trans fats such as partially hydrogenated oils to cook most of its foods. There has been a steady drumbeat in many consumer magazines about the health dangers of trans fats. They're bad for you, supposedly worse than even some of the saturated fats that they replace. Many, many companies use trans fats, and they've resisted moving to healthier oils. Frito Lay was one of the first to make the switch, in their snack foods. And then Kentucky Fried Chicken said it was switching, too - except for their French fries. They still need some work.

So as you're doing your holiday shopping this year, it's good to remember that consumers can have real power. If we act collectively, it IS possible to influence the choice of goods offered for sale. Just remember what happened to milk and fried chicken.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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