Friday, 26 June 2015

CI priority focus on trade: Towards a positive consumer agenda on world trade

Consumers International (CI) is currently developing important work on international trade as a key part of our priority programmes. CI’s activities will aim to ensure that consumers are at the heart of trade negotiations and agreements around the globe. 

Our Director General Amanda Long outlines how we can push forward a positive consumer rights agenda for trade, and ensure the voice of consumers is heard and acted upon in trade discussions between different countries, regions and under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). 

We – the consumers – are the people that make trade work. We are the largest constituency in the economy and should be one of the main beneficiaries of trade, yet business, governments and international organisations do not always get to hear the voice of consumers. 

It’s time we changed this. In an increasingly globalised and digitalised world, there is real potential for consumers to benefit more through trade.

As the international federation of consumer organisations, CI can play a crucial role in developing a positive consumer agenda on trade. Together with our Member organisations and other stakeholders, we are developing an ambitious agenda that both responds to current issues and clearly outlines a vision for how trade can work for consumers. 

CI is in active dialogue with the WTO and other key global organisations to substantially further develop our trade programme.  This includes exploring multi-national campaigning and influencing on trade and trade issues with our Members, as well as continuing our work to influence current trade negotiations and agreements such as TPP, TTIP (through our co-ordination and support for the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue), and developing our focus on future agreements and negotiations.

Can you hear us now? Making the consumer voice heard in global trade discussions.

Consumer representatives need to assert their right to be at the table and have the skills and evidence to be heard in the trade debate. With the proliferation of regional and bilateral free trade agreements, currently negotiated deals are more secretive than those that have taken place under the WTO umbrella. 

We want to develop effective strategies to ensure increased transparency and accountability. We also want to influence current trade negotiations and set the agenda for future trade talks. 

Moreover, consumer representatives need to move with the times. Trade negotiations increasingly address new areas of policy making that have a profound effect on consumers. These days, trade negotiations are less about cutting tariffs, and more about behind the border issues such as national regulations and standards. 

So we need to adapt our agenda and take a look at how trade negotiations impact such areas of genuine consumer interest like food safety, data flows, and financial services. 

The nature of trade is also changing as a result of technology and trade processes are affected too due to digital technology. This development has real potential. It could perhaps be the most democratic form of trade, with consumers themselves driving business. But it also comes with its own set of challenges that we need to address.

Towards a positive consumer agenda on trade

Looking at trade from the consumer perspective is, however, more than just about choice and value.

Consumers have legitimate interests and concerns that are as central to consumption as product variety and prices. Here we need to think about consumer safety, information and redress.  And this all comes down to trust – consumers want to be able to trust the products and services they buy and the companies that provide them. For example:

·                     They want to trust that the toys their children play with are safe.
·                     They want to trust the nutrition and health claims made on food packages.
·                     And they want to trust that they can seek adequate redress when their rights are violated.

That’s why we need to understand the role of trust in building a solid and respected trading system and find ways to promote trade whilst respecting consumers’ concerns.

Put consumers’ concerns and needs at the heart of the international trade agenda and reap the benefits of trust and engagement. Consumers are key to making trade happen, so start with the end in mind – trust and engagement.   

Just to get started, how would trade negotiations and agreements look like if they focused on the needs and concerns of consumers?

1.       Listen to consumers
      The consumer voice and consumer representatives need to be recognised as key relevant parties in trade negotiations and be given an opportunity to provide input and comment. This is especially important in the context of negotiations that are increasingly about regulations, and thus have important implications for consumer safety and protection. 

2.      Respect consumer concerns.
It is essential for trade negotiators to recognise that consumers have vital concerns in relation to safety, public health and the environment that were often hard fought and won. By respecting their concerns, vital consumer trust can be built.

3.       Tackle corruption and lack of competition.
The focus should be on providing a competitive marketplace where the reduction of costs for companies will be transferred to consumers in terms of prices and choice.

4.       Focus on how consumers are using digital technology.
A positive agenda for delivering consumer benefits would address newly emerging issues of buying online across borders. This means addressing gaps in the current IP rules. Improving warranties and online dispute resolution will also have to be central elements. 

Putting consumers at the heart of trade

Consumers matter in trade. Without consumers there wouldn't be much trade. 

However, in the current world of trade negotiations, the voice of the consumer is rarely heard. This needs to change. 

If the consumer voice had a place at the table to provide input and comment into the development of trade agreements, we could create better trade deals that meet consumers’ needs and concerns.  Bringing both economic and social benefits, strong and effective consumer protection can play an important role in positively underpinning economies around the world and the global trading system.

The development of CI’s focus on international trade as a key part of our priority programmes will help push forward a positive consumer rights agenda for trade and ensure that the consumer voice is at the heart of trade discussions around the globe. 

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