• Consumer rights developed thanks to grass-roots networks putting pressure on companies.
  • Today they cover treatment and protection of the consumer experience, as well as the safety and sustainability of our health and environment.
  • Consumer advocacy can play a role in instigating the changes required to tackle the climate crisis.

The Davos Manifesto starts with consumers – and rightly so. It has taken decades for consumers to be recognised as an essential stakeholder with an independent voice and rights. For a fair, safe and sustainable economy, it’s time to empower, inform and activate consumers and build a more balanced and engaged relationship with companies, suppliers and legislators.

The beginnings of consumer rights

Many of us can now take for granted the kitemarks and audits that maintain basic product safety for billions. But in the 1960s, as mass production developed in the West and companies grew their local and global power, consumers were a huge but disorganized economic group, with no collective voice to be heard by decision-makers in companies or government.

Over time, consumer rights, legislation, standards bodies, watchdogs, testing, labelling and information schemes established an organized consumer protection foundation. With grass-roots networks and international presence, consumer advocates kept up pressure on companies who exploited poorer consumers, polluted rivers or damaged air quality.

They represented and supported consumers, building alert systems that stopped the importing of banned, hazardous products into new markets. They brought consumers directly into the process of standards-building at local and international levels, developed collaborative international testing protocols, and brought together consumer policymakers across borders to address wrongs.

Consumer rights today

The modern conception of consumer rights goes far beyond product safety. Your consumer rights – with a global blueprint in the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection – now cover fair treatment and protection of your whole consumer experience, as well as the safety and sustainability of our health and environment.

Much of the work of Consumers International’s members in 100 countries around the world consists of pushing for every consumer to have and maintain these protections across finance, food, energy, mobility and more.

Our member in Zimbabwe, has now seen the country’s first consumer protection act implemented, and our member in Australia is working hard to update their outdated mandatory product safety standards.

This is increasingly complicated by new consumer vulnerabilities. For example, cross-border online shopping has brought with it an increase in cross-border fraud, and an increased availability online of products that have been banned or recalled from offline marketplaces. The advent of cheap and frictionless online shopping is fuelling the fire of high turnover, high waste, fast consumption that takes a heavy toll on our environment.

What happens next?

Building robust digital and platform economies will depend on new and more inclusive levels of consumer trust and participation. We know that addressing the climate crisis will require a vast range of changes in consumer behaviour and attitudes. There is a major contribution that consumer advocacy can and must now make to support the systemic change which consumers expect.

1. Informed, empowered consumers

Consumers are increasingly aware of global changes and issues: from sustainability, to privacy, and the implications of their choices. They are concerned and question how they are protected and empowered to make the right decisions.

A Consumers International survey in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, France and the UK showed that 63% consumers think connected devices are “creepy” in the way they collect data about people.

Image: Consumers International; Internet Society

Two thirds of consumers say they would be willing to pay more for sustainable goods but there are still only the early signals of people actually following through on their good intentions. We need to build better ways of providing meaningful information about issues and solutions to support consumers through a myriad of complicated questions, without paralysing decision-making with information overload.

2. Consumer-centred innovation

Rather than a matter for compliance, some corporate pioneers are seeing consumer protection as a prism for innovation, fuelled by new technologies. Traceability systems can support consumers to make purchasing decisions which shape the marketplace and reflect our social and environmental concerns. Collective switching and group buying apps help us place purchasing power with companies who do the right thing. New models of sharing, aggregating and licensing data in commons or trust structures can make sure the value of our information stays with us as consumers.

3. Cross-border protection

While deeply under-resourced, consumer authorities have increasingly adopted and adapted their existing legislation or agreed to co-operate in cross-border cases from the Republic of Korea, to Mexico, and the UK. Countries are increasingly forming multinational networks to share information and action. A recent OECD study showed that almost all countries have established international enforcement cooperation frameworks. But so far enforcement cooperation has taken place among only half of them. Without appropriate enforcement and action, any standards, laws and frameworks cannot hold.

Consumer advocacy is evolving for the next generation of consumers. Putting the consumer’s voice into the debate is not just the domain of consumer organizations but should also be a priority for business and governments. Together we must shape the future of safety, privacy, and cybersecurity; choice, fairness and sustainability; and the type of capitalism that genuinely serves people and planet with action, not just words.