Global Expert Community: Climate, Conflict, Interconnectedness: Protecting consumers in a changing world

Ahead of the Consumers International Global Congress we asked members of our Global Expert Community to share their perspectives and ideas to inspire and generate dialogue between participants.

In the second installation in a guest blog series penned by members of our Global Experts Community, Laura Best takes us through emerging trends in consumer protection, and the challenges (and opportunities) they present to the consumer movement. 

Views expressed here may not reflect the position of Consumers International or its Members.

Consumer protection has global positioning, notably through the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection [UNGCP] . Interest in this as a policy domain is tangible, though not always top of mind for consumers. Yet incrementally, consumers are becoming aware of the relevance and applicability of regulatory mechanisms to underpin their marketplace transactional activities. Consumer protection is thus a growing and vibrant concept. The thoughts shared here are to stimulate greater debate and deepen thinking among all actors in the space: consumers, businesses, policy makers, regulators, enforcers – and more.

The ideas floated here are contextually located within cognisance of the differences and disparities between formal and informal markets; the socio-economic realities of developed and developing countries; gender-lensing; and disadvantaged, poor, and vulnerable consumers’ precarity.

So, onto a few thoughts…

Climate Consciousness

Thankfully, there is ever-expanding awareness of the impact of climate change on all facets of life, including consumption. This is evident from increased availability of consumer information through, for example, labelling regarding sustainability and climate change implications of products. Consumer climate change consciousness is cascading, with consequent perceptible consumer choice adjustment. The flip-side is the emergence of green-washing and other forms of sustainability-related information distortion.

However, consumers in informal markets can be dis-empowered, because product labelling information is often not available as goods are re-packaged into smaller, and more affordable quantities to suit the pockets of local shoppers. Thought should also be given to unintended consequences for last-mile consumers – who in many instances may also be small-scale artisanal producers of goods - for example higher prices and an inadvertent larger carbon foot during the transport of goods. Yet last-mile producers often grow and produce goods sustainably using intrinsically organic methods, which is unrecognised and under-valued in the market place.

The ravages of prevailing global inequality will play out across consumer activities, with the effects of climate change exacerbated in Africa in particular, compared with continents with high-income countries. The poorest consumers will be the hardest hit by devastation due to climate-change induced disasters, compounded by the lack of public and private sector resources for reconstruction and restoration. This further deepens their vulnerability.

The Humanity-Technology Nexus

Humanity and technology are more connected and inter-woven than ever, and this momentum will surely continue. Artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithmic applications permeate multiple marketplace processes; consumer culture; business decision-making; product design; supply chain functionality; marketing methodologies; consumer behaviour and choice – to name a few. Almost boundary-less data and computing power and AI-infusion offer imaginative analytics which can inform and shape consumer protection policy. Care and caution need to be applied to ensure these policies are inclusive; rights-based and fair.

Consumer education needs to be adaptive to meet the nimbleness of the digital and ever-evolving digitising world; whilst keeping consumers alert to the dark depths of unscrupulous, detrimental and fake uses of digital capacities. Technological capability needs to be continuously harnessed, notably for enforcement [enf-tech] solutions. The “youth-dividend” – namely the digital agility of younger consumers – is available to bring pace-setter thinking and novel consumer protection solutions. The possibilities of technology are in direct proportion to the potential threats – consumer protection systems need to safe-guard this delicate balancing act.

Conflict and collapse

The depths of global pain from inhumane wars and conflicts are unplumbed. The current state of global conflict and war is unprecedented. An inevitable consequence is the collapse of marketplace systems and supply lines. Similarly, state implosion and government dysfunctionality due to corruption and malpractice interrupts markets. Consumption patterns become dictated by scarcity and the possibility of routine buying-and-selling disappears. This is also true for deeply impoverished consumers who have no money to participate in trading and marketplace activities. Consumer protection systems must similarly fail as a matter of course, in such dire and dysfunctional circumstances.

Is there a role for consumer groups to organise and mobilise their “voice" in calls for peace and an end to conflict, given the devastating impact of war on the availability of goods and services?

Surely, there is a clear role and course of action for consumer input and contribution to social restoration, reconstruction and socio- economic system rebuilds in peace-times.

Consumer agency and mobilisation can add momentum to change the vicious circles of violence into virtuous circles of peaceful stability.

One World

Consumers live in a world of unprecedented interconnectedness, under-girded by e-systems and digital capability. This is shrinking the rural-urban divide, as e-commerce extends its reach, providing accessibility even to last-mile consumers physically distant from markets. Global e-platforms offer channels for mass communication, creating the backbone for the full scope of comprehensive consumer protection systems – from consumer education to redress. Similarly e-commerce introduces ways to bridge the sovereignty of country-specific legislation. E -platforms by necessity foster and enable cross-border reach, with the possibility for co-operation and multi-national solutions for integrated consumer protection mechanisms.

The resultant possibilities for global collaboration create pathways for consumers to work collectively to bring closer and make real the intentions of Sustainable Development Goal 12, to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

 

The Consumers International Global Expert Community is a group of leading experts from academia, think tanks and institutions around the world focused on new research related to consumer insights and issues.

To learn more, email hjones@consint.org