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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
The rise and rise of consumer power
By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Chocolate bars by Mars
The makers of Mars listened to vegetarians' complaints
The makers of Mars bars have done a swift U-turn over plans to use animal products in their chocolate, to avoid a public backlash.

It appears the parent company Masterfoods did not reckon on the UK's vegetarians and their supporters being quite such a force.

But as a growing tide of consumers are prepared to use their shopping basket to make a point, companies are increasingly having to watch their step.

A shift in consumerism seems to have taken place as shoppers become increasingly health-conscious and environmentally aware.

From prices and food labelling to sourcing and ingredients, there is little that does not come under the scrutiny of buyers.

And if it is not to their taste, consumers are prepared to reject it.

'Consumer is boss'

In the Mars case, the Vegetarian Society followed Masterfoods' announcement of plans to use rennet by immediately urging members to complain to the company, their MP or local newspaper.

Within a week, the firm had received more than 6,000 calls and e-mails and 40 MPs had signed a petition.

Masterfoods promptly agreed to revert to the old recipe, apologised and declared the "consumer is our boss".

One of the biggest consumer movements in recent years was over genetically modified ingredients.

GM soya beans dumped outside Downing Street, picture by Greenpeace
Protesters dumped GM soya beans outside Downing Street

Dubbed "Frankenstein foods", they were found to be in many of our everyday groceries.

But consumers were unhappy, and responded by writing letters, campaigning and holding demonstrations, causing businesses to fear they would start losing customers.

So, one by one, companies started to change their policies.

A spokeswoman for the organisation Ethical Consumer said this had only happened because of "the hoo-hah from consumers saying 'we don't want this stuff' ".

Now there were virtually no GM ingredients in UK products while they were everywhere in America, she said.

'We didn't enter debate'

While that was a large and far-reaching campaign, consumers scored a direct hit with Sunny Delight.

This was an orange drink that came from nowhere to become a UK top seller.

Loved by mums and lapped up by children, there had been no stopping its meteoric rise and soaring sales until independent consumer group, the Food Commission, began to question its ingredients.

Disneyland in Hong Kong
Disney had wanted to serve shark fin soup in Hong Kong

Consumers began to lose faith in the product, particularly when it was claimed a little girl turned orange after drinking large quantities of it.

She was believed to have been affected by beta carotene - found in orange and carrot juice.

At the time, Jon Walsh, a former launch brand manager of Procter and Gamble, explained the company's mistake.

"We didn't enter the debate. We sort of stayed in our little castle thinking if we don't say anything, the debate will go away," he said.

It didn't, and Procter and Gamble ended up selling the brand to JW Childs which is now giving "SunnyD" a makeover.

The wider picture is that we demonstrated against the Iraq war and the government didn't listen, but we do have power over what we put in our shopping basket
Ethical Consumer spokeswoman

This has involved asking parents across the country for their views on the product, the company said.

Consequently, all artificial colours and flavours have been removed from the drink, sugar levels will be reduced this summer and labels are clearer and carry more information.

In some cases though, it is less to do with action and more about the fear.

After plans were announced to serve shark's fin soup at a new Disneyland in Hong Kong, environmentalists threatened a global boycott of the theme parks.

Disney wanted to serve the luxury dish at wedding banquets and special events but campaigners wanted the soup taken off the menu to help save sharks from extinction.

Initially, Disney offered a compromise by using ecologically sound suppliers, but then had to concede defeat when they were unable to find any.

'Fed up with multinationals'

Ethical Consumer's spokeswoman said she was certain there had been a turnaround in the mindset of the consumer in the last five years.

People had become fed up with multinationals and the impact of supermarkets on communities, leading them to be more vocal, she said.

The public was also generally more politicised than it was 10 years ago, she added.

"The wider picture is that we demonstrated against the Iraq war and the government didn't listen, but we do have power over what we put in our shopping basket."




SEE ALSO
Quick guide: GM Food
29 Jun 06 |  Science/Nature
HK Disney scraps shark's fin soup
25 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
The rise and fall of Sunny Delight
03 Dec 03 |  Business

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