Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Cultural Raid by McWorld

Today’s global economy has a tendency to insulate consumers from the various negative impacts of their purchases by stretching the distance between different phases of a product’s lifecycle—from raw material extraction to processing, use, and disposal. Yet at the same time, social challenges accompanying economic globalization call for innovative forms of political mobilization across international borders. Shifting to more sustainable patterns of consumption and production worldwide will require pursuing new ground rules in order to forge a global economy based on protecting cultural values.

What we see is the onrush of the economic, technological, and ecological forces mesmerizing peoples everywhere with fast music, fast computers, and fast food—one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment, commerce and especially the culture.

Today, the global spread of McWorld is rapidly bringing the consumer society of USA to the rest of the planet. The globalization of the consumer economy is closely linked with the general economic boom and growth in the movement of goods, services, and money across international borders, which accelerated during the 1990s.

McDonald’s operates 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries and serves 46 million customers each day. Its total revenue was $15.4 billion in 2002. On opening day in Kuwait City, the line for the McDonald’s drive-through was over 10 kilometers long. McDonald's has also spread expeditiously across Pakistan in major cities. Strangely, there is no McDonald’s outlet in Peshawar and Quetta. McDonald’s costs the same in Pakistan as in the US, and given the per capita GDP disparity between the two countries, it is the cheapest food in one country, while being one of the most expensive in the other.

Pizza Hut also operates a chain of outlets in Pakistan and planning further to invest approximately 1 billion rupees in expansion. The money is being used to open 20 new outlets.

Coca-Cola sells more than 300 drink brands in over 200 countries. More than 70 percent of the corporation’s income originates outside of the United States, and its net revenues reached $19.6 billion in 2002.

Meanwhile, corporate strategies focused on boosting consumer demand in Pakistan have lead to increases in purchases of all manner of goods, from cars and televisions to paper and fast food. While it is ethically problematic to suggest that developing countries are not entitled to have the same options for material consumption that have long been taken for granted by western consumers, the global adoption of industrial country–style consumption patterns would place unbearable strains on local cultures.

The 1990s saw the emergence of many important international agreements and commitments embracing the need to transform unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. Agenda 21, the action plan that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, called on international institutions and national governments to promote greater energy and resource efficiency, minimize waste generation, encourage environmentally sound purchasing, and shift toward pricing systems that incorporate hidden environmental costs.

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development has provided a useful annual venue for governments and others to discuss consumption and production issues. The deliberations have produced little concrete action though. There is no voice raised for conservation of social values.

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, governments agreed to develop a 10-year framework of programs to accelerate the shift toward sustainable consumption and production. These include offering a better range of products and services to consumers, providing more information about the health and safety of various products, and establishing programs of capacity building and technology transfer to help share these gains with developing countries. The World Summit also generated more than 230 partnership agreements among diverse stakeholders.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has sponsored a series of meetings and papers aimed at encouraging governments to implement innovative sustainable consumption and production policies.

In all these forums, apart from consumption and production, no emphasis is laid on the issue of social influence. Unfortunately, the limited gains made since 1992 in shifting toward more-sustainable patterns of consumption and production have been largely overwhelmed by the continued global growth of the consumer society. The controversial lifestyle issues continue to haunt.

The breakdown of WTO negotiations in CancĂșn in September 2003 provided reform-minded governments and activists with an opportunity to push for bringing future trade negotiations into better balance with sustainable development concerns. The way forward, nevertheless, is not yet clear.

Several new initiatives have emerged in the corporate and financial sectors, including the United Nations’ Global Compact, which calls on participating companies to integrate nine core values related to human rights, labor standards, and environmental protection into their operations, and the Equator Principles, which call on leading banks to manage environmental and social risks in their lending operations.

The international trade negotiations can provide opportunities to push for policy reforms needed to promote more-sustainable consumption and production. All the same, WTO rules and negotiations can also be used to protect cultures and social taboos of the host countries of MNCs.

Brands like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are not just cultural aggression but also an expression of power; once America lost its power these will go. It is nonetheless impossible to filter culture. In the past we hated the British raj but gradually adopted its symbols. Today we hate America and don’t want to adopt what we think is its culture. Pakistan must save its own culture to counter the onslaught. There is a need for reform in our culture, but this should not be obfuscated through this hatred or that. The only answer to the American cultural onslaught is the protection of Pakistan’s own culture. (