What corporations don’t want you to know

Disclosure regulations don't ban products, they just inform consumers. So why do companies fight them so hard?

Topics: U.S. Economy, Nutrition, ,

What corporations don't want you to know (Credit: AP/M. Spencer Green)

Last month, Gallup reported that despite economic crises brought on by financial deregulation, far more Americans still worry that there will be too much regulation rather than not enough. No doubt, the survey results reflect the triumph of conservative “free-market” rhetoric in equating regulation with job loss in the American psyche. That’s a victory of ideology over economic reality, because, as Businessweek recently noted, regulations are hardly job killers. Instead, the magazine points out, they typically “wind up creating about as many jobs as they kill.” In the process, they also mitigate major social problems, as Coca-Cola and Pepsi just proved.

In a move that could serve as the singular parable about the value of regulation, the two soft drink behemoths recently announced they “are making changes to the production of an ingredient in their namesake colas to avoid the need to label the packages with a cancer warning,” according to Reuters. The shift comes in the face of a science-based decision to designate the ingredient a potential carcinogen, which then subjected it to a California regulation mandating disclosure of such compounds to consumers.

Over the course of history, the most famous regulations — not the free market — have reduced everything from wage theft to pollution to financial implosions to mass food poisoning. Less well remembered — but equally important — is that subset of regulations that simply force companies to tell us exactly what is in their products. Those empower consumers to make more informed decisions about where to spend their money — and, as last week showed, they often end up prompting companies to preemptively produce their wares in a more responsible manner.

Even to those who think the government shouldn’t set rules dictating the terms of production, basic disclosure regulations should be considered a no-brainer in a functioning capitalist economy. Such regulations don’t say a product cannot be produced — they simply say that when the product is produced, consumers have a right to know what is in it. Why would anyone argue against that?

Why? Because money — Big Money — is involved.



Almost every time a disclosure regulation has been proposed, the moneyed interests involved mobilize to stop them — or at least slow them down. In the pursuit of profit, industries would rather keep consumers in the dark than be forced to answer pesky questions about human health, the environment and other such concerns. Consider just the last few years:

  • The oil and gas industry has fought tooth and nail against state legislative proposals to at least disclose what kinds of toxic chemicals they are pumping into the ground when they engage in hydrofracturing.
  • Major meat producers have opposed country-of-origin labeling regulations, successfully using the World Trade Organization to knock down those rules so as to keep consumers in the dark about where their meat is from.
  • Monsanto, the agriculture bio-tech giant, has used its political clout to stop regulatory proposals in the United States that would force food companies to tell consumers whether products included genetically modified ingredients. But that’s not all: The corporate colossus has also convinced the U.S. government to use its power to try to gut other nations’ GMO labeling laws, too.
  • The cosmetics industry has not only stopped state legislatures from regulations banning suspected toxins in beauty products, but has also ensured that the federal government regulations do not require the disclosure of most of those toxins. “Since the federal cosmetics law was written more than 70 years ago, the FDA has banned just eight out of the 12,000-plus ingredients used in cosmetics,” notes activist Annie Leonard. “The FDA doesn’t even require all of the ingredients to be listed on the label.”
  • Most recently, the tobacco industry has used the federal court system to invalidate regulations mandating explicit warning labels about the adverse effects of smoking on human health.

Let’s be clear: These are but a few of many examples of a larger corporate opposition to basic disclosure. It is an opposition that is driven by corporations invested in the status quo — and from a business perspective, it is entirely practical because industries know full well that public information tends to change consumer behavior. Indeed, a 2000 study by Texas A&M researchers found that now-standard nutrition labels on food substantially “decreased individuals’ average daily intakes of calories from total fat and saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.” Likewise, a 2010 Stanford University study, for example, found that calorie labeling at Starbucks resulted in a 6 percent decline in the average calories per transaction (and, countering those who claim that such regulations harm profits, Starbucks actually increased its profits in the process).

While some companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi change their products in the face of labeling regulations, other corporations have tried to preempt such regulations and the subsequent shift in consumer behavior by rolling out their own reassuring labels. Rather than change their products, these firms have opted to try to either mislead consumers entirely or at least confuse them with information overload.

In terms of full-on misleading, as the New York Times reported in a 2011 story about the proliferation of “functional food” labels, federal regulators are now concerned “that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands.” When it comes to merely overloading the consumer with too much information, the already bewildering chaos at the supermarket could get even more perplexing in the coming months with Wal-Mart rolling out its own “Great for You” label for foods it deems healthy.

Information, as the old saying goes, is power. And when we consider all of this in totality, it’s clear corporate America recognizes the truth in the aphorism. Companies, in other words, understand that for all the fact-free vitriol constantly thrown at the basic concept of regulation, government regulations that increase information simply expand consumer power over the market. That may threaten companies that want to continue poisoning us, but as a political goal, consumer empowerment shouldn’t be so controversial. Continuing to keep consumers in the dark and powerless should be.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>