Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Is it time to look again at consumer rights?

On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s seminal statement on consumer rights, CI Director General Helen McCallum looks at whether these principles are relevant today, and what challenges consumers face in the future.

On 15 March 1962 US President John F. Kennedy became the first ever serving world leader to directly address the issue of consumer rights. In a statement to the US Congress, President Kennedy said:

“Consumers by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group... whose views are often not heard.”

He outlined a set of consumer rights which have, over time, developed into eight principles that inspire much of the work consumer rights groups do today: the right to safety… to be informed… to choose… to be heard… to redress… to consumer education… to a healthy environment…  and the right to the satisfaction of basic needs.

Every year our movement marks Kennedy’s address on 15 March as World Consumer Rights Day. Consumer groups around the world will be doing so again this year; and many will be joining together with Consumer International to call for ‘real choice’ for consumers of financial services

Many consumer rights advocates will also be reflecting on those eight consumer rights inspired by President Kennedy’s 1962 address. One can rightfully ask 50 years on, are these rights still enough in this globalised, digitised world? What do these rights mean for the future?

With the failure of the banking industry affecting so many lives, should we, for instance, demand a consumer right to corporate responsibility? Or, as some commentators have suggested in light of the current debate around the digitisation of our private lives, can we call for a consumer right to privacy?

The digital era has created a new landscape, one in which intellectual property and copyright are suddenly consumer rights issues. Consumers in several countries have been sued millions of dollars for downloading music and film, or using creative content without permission. What consumer rights do we need to defend this? Perhaps a right of access to knowledge?

As well as being a challenge to consumer rights, the internet and social media have also created a whole new mode of expression which is working as a powerful new catalyst for action.

The same technology that has helped the Arab spring create a new reality for millions, is allowing consumers to share opinions and purchasing decisions through user generated content, Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter trends. 

New media is also creating new forms of consumer activism that can be global, instant and incredibly powerful. Just look at Which?’s Big Switch campaign  which has secured nearly 200,000 online signatures from consumers wishing to be part of their collective purchasing initiative to get lower energy prices;  or how consumer campaigns like Defend Your Dollars, and MuevetePorTuDinero are utilising social media.

When the number of people using Facebook is bigger than the population of the United States, and the number of Twitter users rivals the population of Brazil – you can understand the power of the tools. Consumer rights and consumer rights organisations have a duty to adopt them.

In other areas, nanotechnologies offer huge advantages to consumers – such as self cleaning clothes and self washing windows – but there are other uses which can get into people’s blood streams through cosmetics or toothpaste and we want to see proper research and testing done before these products are launched into the market place.

Equally there are new challenges arising from new discoveries – the mapping of the human genome and the increasing capacity to identify likelihood of inherited disease has the potential to radically change the way insurance works. Unless consumer organisations think through these issues and represent the consumer perspective the resulting products may seriously disadvantage many people.

Climate change is probably the biggest challenge of 21st century – yet its causes and affects are unequal. Those with the smallest carbon foot print are often those most likely to suffer the consequences, while those who are already consuming too much have the resources to mitigate the worst affects of a warming planet.

It is also crucial to find a balance in how we tackle the environmental impact of consumption versus the rights of developing economies to strive for a better standard of living. The international consumer rights movement has a major role in getting this delicate balance right, and we will be doing just that at the forthcoming Rio Earth Summit in June.

As a planet, we are currently consuming the bio capacity of 1.5 planets each year –This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year. The UN predicts this will be 2 planets by the 2030’s if current consumption trends continue. Not being part of the solution here is not an option for consumer rights organisations.

Much has changed since President Kennedy first outlined his vision of consumer rights, yet in many ways the challenges we face are the same. We still want safe products and services; to be informed of the facts before we purchase; to have a meaningful choice; and to have our voice listened to as consumers.

The future will still need a consumer rights movement that stands up for these principles: they are as relevant today as they ever have been.

Happy World Consumer Rights Day.

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