Celebrating Sixty Years of Consumer Protection
|Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay |
Here's the ChatGPT summary of what I've written:
Consumer rights have been around for over sixty years though they have changed considerably over time. Early initiatives centred mainly on the safety of products and value for money. Advocacy and education about consumer rights were also important, such as understanding the right to return a faulty product, regardless of what businesses might say. More recently, consumer organisations have questioned the nutritional content of food, food and energy security, affordability and the ethical practices behind production. However, consumer rights in areas such as housing and rental markets still have a long way to go.
Now read on....
I had a good experience on World Consumer Rights Day (15th). Not that it had started out that way. I’d gone to the local hardware store to complain about my non -working brush cutter which had only been used a few times, but whose warranty had expired a few days earlier. Fortunately for me, a very patient young man pulled it apart and got it going again, leaving me feeling very positive about that particular business. Customer service is not dead and at least it could be repaired, but that doesn't mean I'm happy about products like this which contribute little to the world other than adding to the mountains of landfill.
We need the kinds of laws which France now has which rate products on their durability and repairability and those in Europe generally, which insist that objects must be repairable and parts kept for a minimum of ten years. Though sustainability is an important aspect of consumer affairs, it is but one of many and as the World Consumer Rights Movement recently celebrated its 60th birthday, I thought we might look at some of its many achievements and where it’s heading now.
The Evolution of Consumer Rights
No discussion about consumer protection would be complete without mention of Ralph Nader. As a young lawyer in America, he began calling for vehicle safety reforms in the 1970s just as cars were starting to proliferate. This resulted in the 1972 Vehicle Safety Act and this was followed by a number of other initiatives to empower consumers such as the Freedom of Information Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Clean Water Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, and the Whistleblower Protection Act in the USA. [Aalas, we Aussies are still waiting for the latter].
Product Safety and Value for Money
Mind the Gap
Strangely, this still doesn’t seem to apply to housing, most likely the biggest purchase most of us make in our lives. In Australia, people with new builds now have some recourse in some states - if the builder hasn’t gone into liquidation, but there are also many people in whole blocks of new but crumbling apartments, bought off the plan, who now find that they can neither get their money back, sell up or afford the cost of repairs. See for example Canberra, Perth, or Sydney. As a disgruntled home renovator remarked on the ABC’s 7.30 Report last night, “ You’ve got more consumer protection when you buy a ten dollar toaster.”
In a very tight rental market, tenants’ rights also still have a way to go and are certainly not uniform across the country and not many renters are aware of them. I don't know how other countries are faring in this regard, but I do know that in countries such as Germany renters have more security of tenure, rents may not be more than a certain amount of income and cannot be raised arbitrarily. I believe that in our present cost -of -living crisis our federal government should step in to establish uniform ground rules to prevent rising homelessness.
Quality of Food, Sustainability and Ethical Concerns
More recently consumers, and consumer organisations have been questioning the nutritional content of our food, where it is grown and how safe it is. Strawberries have been found to contain far higher fungicide levels than legally allowed. Do products really live up to claims of being organic or palm oil free? Do claims about health benefits of products stack up? It is still legal to make all kinds of claims about beauty products. Are they tested on animals? Do they contain toxic substances? Is the packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable? Are products being made ethically or with slave labour? Is sustainable timber really sustainable or have the authorities been bribed to say so? The list goes on with safeguards and assurances ever more difficult to verify.
With respect to packaging, Consumers International has recently been working towards a
binding treaty to prevent plastic pollution. Click here for more on Sustainable Consumption.
Ralph Nader has certainly not rested on his laurels either. Like David Attenborough and Erin Brokovich, he’s still fighting for all of us. On his monthly program for example, he has been campaigning against the commercial interests which contribute to our ill health. Unfortunately this is too long to include here, but watch out for this and other issues on YouTube.
Interestingly, France is proposing new laws which require social media influencers to declare it they have used retouched images or filters. Failure to declare could attract fines, bans and even gaol terms, to limit "the destructive psychological effects of such practices." See the post on Body Image to find out why. France is also considering bans on the promotion of cosmetic surgery, crypto currency and gambling on social media.
With the growth of online shopping and banking, Consumer Rights Groups have been lobbying governments and educating consumers about their rights when buying online -how not to get scammed and how to protect their privacy and how to use social media safely. The USA is among several countries considering banning TikTok because of it's capacity to collect data.
Although several groups are working on data security both in Australia and overseas, the spate of recent large scale data breaches in the US and Australia, suggest that penalties for failing to secure data and retaining personal information once a contract has expired, need to be much higher. At the very least we need EU level data protection which prevents companies from collecting more data than absolutely necessary to carry out the required service. The EU's General Data Protection Act (2017) ensures that data can only be gathered under strict conditions and for legitimate purposes. It can't be onsold to Third Parties either and this also applies to market places, online platforms and hosting services.
As many services such as health and banking move online, Consumers International has also been campaigning for equitable, affordable internet access for all.
The Internet of Things
The Cost -of -Living Crisis
Speaking of affordability, this year’s theme is about the increasing cost of basics such as food and energy. During surveys of members in 2022, 65 reported increases in food prices with 38% saying that food prices had gone up by over 50% and 53% reporting that people were cutting back on buying food or skipping meals. As far as energy prices went 81.3% reported having to adjust their budgets to cover price rises.
Consumers International presented this material to international leaders at many gatherings including UNCTAD, the FAO, the World Economic Forum and the G20 Summit, to call for the protection of the most vulnerable.
In addition to the 70 million people already experiencing food stress, Consumers International has also highlighted the need for long range planning beyond immediate global crises such as war, economic instability and disasters, and is calling for continued regard for safety, sustainability and nutritional aspects.
At the latest Committee on Food Security, representatives from over 100 hundred countries submitted detailed plans, including what action will be required to achieve them. These will now be presented to world leaders in business, at all levels of government and civil society at upcoming conferences such as COP27, Davos and UNCTAD’s IGE on Consumer Protection Law and Policy in July 2023.
Energy Costs and Household Debt
Consumers International has also lobbied for the inclusion of energy on the session agenda. Their report on equitable access to renewable and affordable energy is well worth a read. It is also calling for a fair transition to renewable energy. I and I’m sure millions of others will also be very interested to hear what can be done about “price gouging during a crisis.’
With 70% of respondents reporting increasing levels of household debt due to rising prices, Consumers International is pushing for greater regulation in the finance sector. It not only wants greater transparency but protection from over -indebtedness and unexpected fees, especially with respect to “Buy now, pay later” schemes. So far 9 countries have supported such moves, with many more expected to follow later in the year.
A Work in Progress
This is only a brief summary of the major trends. Within each country consumer groups continue to promote consumer rights. India for instance, is looking at vehicle safety, safer food and digital rights. Japan is concerned about AI, but also about the use of antibiotics in food production. Chile is also looking at vehicle safety and antibiotic use and both Chile and India are looking at protecting the most vulnerable from rising prices. If you are wondering about the recent interest in antibiotics, it's because their overuse in animal husbandry means that there are now few effective ones left for medical purposes.
As you can see we owe a great deal to the Consumer Rights Movement but as its work continues and becomes more complex, it needs all the support it can get. Find out what your local organisations are doing and add your voice, spread the word or donate if you can. Find out more at the Consumers International website.
BREAKING NEWS 30/3/2023
- Today Elon Musk and other big names in the IT industry have called for a pause on the proliferation of AI Platform ChatGTP until its impact on society and the jobs of millions of people can be assessed. See the post about AI here.
- I have also added a bit more to the post about Forests which I started on the day I broke my arm.