Thursday, 30 May 2013

Is it possible to set a standard for innovation?

CI’s Luke Upchurch attended ISO COPOLCO to see how its participants are setting new standards in consumer protection.
As always, I was mightily impressed with the organisation and efficiency of the international standards community as it met for its annual gathering on consumer issues – ISO COPOLCO. Compared to some of the grander global forums I’ve participated in, these guys are always fully briefed, committed and focused on the job of advancing the protection of consumers through standards for products and services – quietly conducting this crucial work in the interests of consumers worldwide.
Consumers International has long been involved in COPOLCO (it stands for COsumer POLicy COmmittee), advocating for new global standards on social responsibility, customer satisfaction, second-hand goods, and the safety of household products. We’re currently leading the development of a new standard for improving energy service provision for consumers. Standards is a vital area of our work and a constant priority for our Members and Supporters.
This year’s gathering in Malta in late May looked at the impact of innovation on consumer protection and the role standards should play. Almost 20 CI Member groups joined over 60 national standard body representatives to consider issues from social media to nanotechnology.  
It could almost be considered an oxymoron: Standard innovation. As Norma McCormick, chair of ISO COPOLCO pointed out; by their nature “innovations are fast, and standards are slow”. Finding consensus on a standard can take years, by which time the innovation it set out to tackle is several generations down the line.
From the outside this could appear to be a major hindrance, but speak to those with knowledge of the standards process and many see the slow pace as an advantage. The lengthy deliberations mean all stakeholders – regardless of resources or time constraints – have a chance to comment. It means unworkable suggestions are ironed out, and mistakes and longer-term trends in the new innovations can be dealt with. Invariably it means that standards work; they enjoy strong backing from stakeholders, and stand the test of time.
The role of standards (or lack of them) within the digital age came up time and again at the meeting. For instance, as our recent research shows two thirds of countries have no mechanisms in place to resolve e-commerce disputes out of court; meaning victims of online shopping malpractice may be forced to seek redress through expensive court settlements.
But the digital issue that drew the most attention was the role standards need to play in online feedback and user reviews. As the UK’s Consumer Futures puts it:
“the growth in feedback and review services is one of the most empowering developments for consumers in the past decade.”
Their work, which is featured in the CI Resource Zone, has also shown that 88% of UK consumers check user-reviews before making a purchase.
How do we make sure that online feedback is trusted, fair and balanced? How can we retain consumer confidence? Well, internationally agreed standards for submission, verification, and authenticity would be a major step in that direction – something the French standards body, AFNOR, is pioneering with its work on second-party verification (pdf).
Standards may be slow, and they may live a life outside the spotlight, but ISO COPLOCO once again demonstrate why they are vital to long-term, sustainable consumer protection; and why standards bodies and consumer groups must continue to work closely together.

1 comment:

  1. It is very much possible to set standards in the ever evolving technology including digital age. True, innovations or technological advancement are faster while the standards are slow, but here too we can have standards, like we can have standards validity of 3 years, giving time to consumers to absorb the changing trends while giving lead to the industry to adopt the changes. I am not a technologist but do believe that slow standards alone will do in the developing countries that have to keep pace with the socio-economic and academic developments of consumers.
    In India where the number of ‘educated’ consumer activist organisations is counted on finger tips, there is no forum for discussion on issues like standardisation of any product or services. The product testing is picking up, but there is no system of “consumer review” talked about in the CI Blog.
    Technically and legally there is a forum in the form of Consumer Protection Councils (CPCs)at National, State, and District levels where issues like standards can be taken up and discussed in the light of what consumers need. But, for the reason that such Councils have either not been constituted or, if constituted, they are loaded with political and business influences. Also, bureaucracy in India considers these Councils as avoidable burden in the belief that they know better than the consumers’ representatives. And, to some extent they are correct. Yet, it is felt that unless the Councils are constituted there would not be any churning to get the knowledgeable in the process of consumer protection by means of laid down standards.
    I, in Binty (a voluntary consumer organisation based in New Delhi), have been talking of making it mandatory to have CPCs constituted, but the hurdles as mentioned above are the bureaucracy, business community, politicos and, the most important, the absence of the required number of matured and educated consumer activists and organisations for representation at Standards body/bodies. Here, the influence of CI may help.
    I am also working on standardisation of activities of Consumer Clubs in academics in the country that will be visible and accountable besides turning out informed consumers among the youth. This programme is in limbo.
    Another thing comes to mind – I have been collecting resource material for that – is introduction of Consumer Protection Management Studies at par with the Business Management courses in order to educate consumers about the various standards and procedures legislated and their implementation process. In the case of product or services testing a system of consumer review can also be designed, developed, and produced as an academic curriculum. And, this type of courses is best suited for University Level Home Science Colleges in India.
    I take this opportunity of stressing up the implementation of CPCs as provided in the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, in India and we need forming an international opinion to influence the government decision. A debate on the formation, structured activities, and dissemination of the decisions arrived at will help in the planned progression of consumer protection, education and awareness.
    Views and comments are welcome.

    G. C. Mathur,
    Convenor-Trustee Treasurer, Binty,
    No.9-B/9, F.F.,
    Kishangarh, Vasant Kunj P.O.,
    New Delhi-110070.
    Phones: Landline: 91 11 2613232, Cell 91 9910338312.