The Illusion of Choice

These 10 Corporations Control Almost Everything You Buy
These 10 Corporations Control Almost Everything You Buy

It’s worth clicking on the info-graphic above to see the finer detail it contains, although the over-arching sentiment makes its own headlines.

It would be perfectly reasonable to take a look at the graphic, shrug your shoulders, with a “yeah, so what?” and perhaps avoid taking any type of hypocritical stand point by bemoaning the enormous footprint, influence and Orwellian doom-mongering speculation that might come from accepting that the world’s corporate elite monopolise so much, given you yourself may well spend your hard earned cash buying, using and consuming the products that these companies market and sell.  On that charge, I am also guilty on many counts.

Reading yesterday about the chain “7-Eleven” coming to Vietnam next year, and watching Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, Dunkin’ Donuts (and, as of 2014, the ‘Big Mac’ behemoth itself, McDonalds) all open up shop here in Saigon, I instead found myself remembering this info-graphic from a year ago and chose to feel (albeit belatedly) somewhat crestfallen about the unequal power held by these corporations, and finished up my day by making SBOs (‘Statements of the Bleeding Obvious’) to myself as I zig-zagged home on my bike, between pineapple street-vendors, local coffee stalls and bustling market traders, securing as they do each day their evening trade, haggling over the prices of pigs’ ears, betel leaves and fresh red snapper…

SBO No 1: who would choose the heady mix of processed, fried, sugar-coated, caffeinated, trans-fatted, greased up, often untraceable, “fast” food over and above some of the immaculate local dishes and ingredients that are so readily available on any Vietnamese street corner?

SBO No 2: given the well evidenced correlation between fast food and obesity, and Vietnam’s own research and Government health warnings over the bulging waistlines of its nation’s youngsters, why are families here increasingly influenced by the myriad of new consumption opportunities now available?

These are obvious statements to make because this is not new news for anyone with access to information over the past 20 years.  But make them I did, and share them I am doing now – yours is the right to then discard them or carry on reading…

Here in Vietnam, access to information is not an issue.  Yet, the unprecedented demand for products and consumables from international brands is also set to sky rocket.  It’s already happening in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, too. Neighbouring Myanmar is a ticking time bomb, years behind in terms of infrastructure, but primed to follow suit as its economy spikes and the middle-class grows.

It seems to me that many of the world’s most severe and shared issues – how we manage our resources, regulate our markets, adapt to a changing climate, ensure more inclusion for those people in society historically without access to services, address malnutrition and the severity of some of the world’s worst diseases – meet in some societal, environmental, economic “middle”, whereby it is plausible to seek out win-win opportunities to address multiple issues simultaneously.

Example: Using mobile phone technology to help small-holder farmers in Africa receive up to date market prices, thereby leveraging a better price for their yield…and thereby affording to purchase crop insurance for when the next drought hits and compromises their harvest…and thereby ensuring their children remain in school, and can be empowered as young adults through knowledge and shared experiences.

And so on.

A virtual circle of happenings, investments, attitudes and, for many in that sequencing of things: compromises.

Big business in the past has perhaps felt the compromising piece falls to them.  In the African farmer example, insurance companies are required to drop prices on their products to make them more affordable to farmers with very little capital, whilst mobile phone providers equally have to offer better deals which might present financial risks to their business model.  In other examples, companies concede by making “charitable” donations towards community initiatives, or offer their staff time off to volunteer on the very same initiatives.

However, we also now know that there are huge gains for big business in thinking about their role in the world more responsibly: access to new customers and new revenue streams; positive PR and reputational kick backs; and even the retention of employees, bouyed by their association with working for a “positive” employer.

Why though, does the heart sink at the opening of yet another fast food chain here in Saigon?  Perhaps from a sense of sadness at the slow evaporation of culture that inevitably follows any local Asian back-street evolving into a line of brightly lit, air conditioned outlets for the distribution of materialistic junk, that serves only to curb an “appetite” most Vietnamese have happily lived without for many generations past.

I often feel both privileged and confused by living in Vietnam. For me, however, it is obvious that finding these “win-wins” must become the obsession of my generation.

Shared solutions, encouraged compromises, and the pursuit of collaboration.  

I have quoted him before, but Tiziano Terzani writes poignantly about this region of the world, and its recent shifts and adoptions of the “modern” world.  And, given his own narrative on such things is far too eloquent and moving not to steal by way of signing off for today (Friday 13th being the day of auspiciousness as it is, as well as being my mother’s birthday – Happy Birthday Mum! – xxx) I leave the last word to him: 

“One after another the countries of Asia have managed to free themselves from the colonial yoke and show the West the door.  But now the West is climbing back in by the window and conquering Asia at last, no longer taking over its territories, but its soul.  It is doing it without any plan, without any specific political will, but by a process of poisoning for which no antidote has yet been discovered: the notion of modernity.  We have convinced the Asians that only by being modern can they survive, and that the only way of being modern is ours, the Western way…

…We should all ask ourselves – always – if what we are doing improves and enriches our lives.  Or have we all, through some monstrous deformation, lost the instinct for what life should be: first and fore-most, an opportunity to be happy.  Are the inhabitants happier today, gathered in families chatting over supper, or will they be happier when they too spend their evenings mute and stupefied in front of a television screen?  I am well aware that if we were to ask them, they would say that in front of a television is better.”

(Tiziano Terzani, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, 1997)

One thought on “The Illusion of Choice

  1. Pingback: Easter in Shanghai | saigonsays

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