Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD: 'Do consumers play a role as influencers of sustainable consumption?'

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AUTHOR: Ms. Pamela Coke-Hamilton

As part of our blog series for World Consumer Rights Day, we asked thought leaders across the world to provide insight into the campaign theme 'The Sustainable Consumer'. 

Ms. Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Director of Division on International Trade and Commodities at United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) outlines that the ways that consumers can drive changes on sustainability issues.

As we celebrate World Consumer Rights Day 2020, it is timely to ask whether consumers play an important role in moving the sustainable consumption agenda. Discussions on consumer education, good business practices, government policy efforts and civil society engagement should shape consumers’ contribution at the grassroots level. Consumers can indeed be active market players when they are informed of their rights and stand ready to enforce them. Empowered consumers can encourage business innovation, investment and competition, driving sustainable production and consumption.

The United Nations has continuously raised the role of consumers in the context of protecting the environment and achieving development that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. Already back in 1992, Agenda 21 of United Nations Conference on Environment and Development stated that “the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances”. Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns details the responsibilities of and actions to be taken by various stakeholders, including governments, businesses and consumers.

Today, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), as the focal point for consumer protection policies within the United Nations System, assists developing countries through its guidance to business, government and civil society in addressing the impact of consumption habits on the environment and their negative effects on existing resources. The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP), thereafter “Guidelines”, serve as the most important soft-law mechanism that helps countries formulate and implement laws on sustainable consumption. The Guidelines accord responsibility to all players including governments, civil society, international organizations, consumer organizations and “informed consumers” who influence actions taken by all other stakeholders:

Consumers driving business efforts:

The Guidelines directly address businesses, establishing benchmarks for them to operate in a more responsive manner to consumer needs. They call upon the private sector to play an active role in various aspects of protecting consumers, including fair and equitable treatment, ethical commercial behaviour, information disclosure and transparency, privacy protection and appropriate complaint-handling mechanisms (Guideline 11).

Consumer demand can encourage businesses to design sustainable products. In addition, informed consumers who know their rights and obligations and are able to stand for them can be vigilant to products with green and eco labels: consumers should first read, understand and interpret labels before choosing to buy and should complain in case of misleading or false claims. Businesses should comply with consumer information obligations and establish mechanisms to monitor consumer feedback.

Consumers driving government efforts

The Guidelines recommend that national consumer protection policies should include their “own priorities for the protection of consumers in accordance with the economic, social and environmental circumstances of the country and the needs of its population, bearing in mind the costs and benefits of the proposed measures” (Guideline 4).

Governments as policymakers have many avenues to encourage sustainable production, which is crucial for sustainable consumption. Furthermore, consumer education programs informing the public on the impact of their choices on the environment, their rights and obligations while at the same time considering the cultural traditions of the people concerned, are decisive to promote sustainable consumption (Guideline 42).

The legitimate needs of consumers that the Guidelines are intended to meet include the protection of consumers from hazards to their health and safety, access by consumers to adequate information to enable them to make informed choices according to individual wishes and needs, consumer education, and the promotion of sustainable consumption patterns (Guideline 5).

Consumers call upon government to ensure that information and education programs reach all consumer groups, including the vulnerable and disadvantaged (children, elderly, populations in remote areas, persons with disabilities), in all local languages, to enhance the effectiveness of education programs, taking into consideration the special needs of developing countries.

Consumers driving civil society efforts:

The Guidelines call upon civil society organizations, in collaboration with governments and business, to develop and promote sustainable consumption through “a mix of policies” (Guideline 51), including regulations, economic and social instruments, and sectoral policies. Such concerted efforts identify best practices that promote sustainable consumption and production patterns and environmental management, including recycling programs that encourage consumers to recycle waste and purchase recycled products, the use of new environmentally sound goods and services, and new technologies geared towards meeting consumer needs with less pollution and depletion of natural resources (Guideline 52, 57). Ultimately, sustainable consumption can only be achieved through the coordination and joint efforts of all relevant stakeholders. Consumer surveys to assess program impacts and understanding should be implemented, and their results shared between respective government bodies, civil society organizations and businesses to allow for adjustments and improvements.