Global Congress 2023: Building through crises together - with a consumer care revolution

11 December 2023

“We must raise our voice collectively. We need to continue to build resilience in the face of crises, and I know from what I’ve seen over the past four years that we can do that together.”

As Global Congress 2023 was brought to a close, Consumers International Director General Helena Leurent reiterated the message that was heard time and again during our meeting of global consumer advocates, civil society, policy-makers, regulators and marketplace leaders. Panellists pointed out that facing the cost of living crisis, developing truly sustainable food systems and rapidly increasing the rollout of clean energy will simply not be possible unless governments, businesses and civil society work together to prioritise the care, wellbeing and empowerment of consumers. They also talked up the need for international alliances to build better protections for consumers in the digital world and frameworks to manage artificial intelligence (AI).

Collaboration in the 2020s needs to go beyond regional boundaries, because the problems facing consumers are cross-border by nature. And it requires key marketplace players to place an emphasis on consumer care at all stages of the consumer journey. This is the driving force behind our new initiative, Interoperability for All: Cross-border consumer redress and trust, which looks to support consumers in upholding their rights when their data is misused outside their home country.

To maximise impact, key players across the marketplace should seek unusual partnerships, forging connections with organisations they might never have considered working with before, the closing session was told by Angela Oduor Lungati, Executive Director of Kenyan NGO Ushahidi.

Here are the areas where collaborative efforts need to focus to build a more resilient future for consumers, and kick start a consumer care revolution.      

1. Fair, sustainable, and resilient systems

Consumers have had enough of being subjected to systems that they cannot control – or where they don’t see real transparency and accountability. They want control and clarity, in the energy sources they use, the way their data is distributed, and the services they use to manage their money. They want to know when and how they are interacting with algorithms and AI, and to have a clear route for redress when things go wrong.

Food systems need to be rebalanced too. Production-centric models are failing too many people, and soaring prices prove this. Consumers International’s new Fair Food Price Monitor will enable shared solutions to this problem, led by improvements in the availability of data to track food prices at all stages of the supply chain. The Monitor will act as an early warning system for unfair pricing, enabling greater transparency and building bridges from consumers and their representatives to regulators.

There’s also a need for better digital public infrastructure to give consumers access to the services and data they need, where and when they need them. Digital payments and ID systems can save people time and money, while enhancing economic opportunities on a city and country level.

2. Enforcing accountability 

Consumer education is undeniably important. People need to understand developments such as digital finance to make it work best for them.

However, information and awareness campaigns are simply not sufficient to build trust: efforts such as this must not detract from the need to hold businesses, regulators and others to account. Industry groups don’t hesitate to raise their voice when they feel regulators are not doing a good enough job, and consumer advocates need to take the same approach, US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Rebecca Kelly Slaughter told Congress’s closing session, urging people to use complaints portals to make themselves the eyes and ears of regulators.

The Consumers International Fair Digital Finance Accelerator with initial support from CGAP and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is designed to help consumer groups come together to understand the gaps and issues that need addressing, build capacity, engage with stakeholders, and strengthen digital finance regulation. Currently 65 consumer organisations are involved and the number is growing.

In 2023, the Accelerator provided dedicated support to eight consumer organisations from low- and middle-income countries to implement initiatives that drive change at the national level. These initiatives focus on strengthening consumer redress and support consumer advocacy for improved regulatory and industry structures.

In the digital realm, scams are on the rise but are regularly going unpunished due to a lack of consumer protection. Consumers International's Global Statement to Stop Online Scams calls on governments to require online platforms to take far more effective action to detect and prevent scams. Action from governments sends a strong message to platforms. As Rocio Concha Galguera, Director of Policy and Advocacy and Chief Economist at Which? pointed out, if platforms can introduce mechanisms to mitigate scams and fake reviews in the jurisdictions where legislation requires it, then there is no reason why they can’t make these measures available globally.

3. Trust in technology

Our work on scams is all about building trust back into the online marketplace. A lack of confidence in any system erodes people’s willingness to engage with that system, said Bob Hedges, Chief Data Officer at Visa, declaring that if a system doesn’t work for consumers, then it doesn’t work at all. He elaborated that scams and fraud explain why people are being pushed away from digital developments, such as mobile banking, that offer huge potential benefits for consumers if managed correctly.

Across other areas of digital finance, speakers called for evidence of its principles, not just its practicality, and support for vulnerable consumers in particular. Our latest global multistakeholder initiative, supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, will explore models of digital finance that improve consumer protection and elevate the voice of vulnerable consumers.

But consumer protection needs to look forwards to remain effective, and that is why generative AI also needs to be firmly in the spotlight. Social media has shown the dangers of sitting back and waiting for problems to develop, the FTC’s Slaughter told Congress’s closing session, while Ushahidi’s Lungati said that any work around new technologies and AI needs to remain laser-focused on considering how people are actually interacting with these developments.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has issued principles and guidance on AI focused on making it co-design inclusive, and ensuring it offers equitable access that does not leave any vulnerable populations behind, said its Senior Advisor for Global Policy and Advocacy, Deon Woods Bell. “In March, UNESCO, together with the OECD, launched a report on the effects of AI in the working lives of women,” she added. “We want you to go on a journey to try to better understand the benefits and the harms of AI. We want to think together about the possibilities and we want to work together to get rid of the harms.”

Ultimately, we need rules to ensure all technologies are designed in a way that makes them easy for consumers not just to use, but to understand, said Gilly Wong, Chief Executive Hong Kong Consumer Council. Transparency around AI and algorithm use is needed to build trust, this will be explored at World Consumer Rights Day 2024, when  200 consumer advocacy members from over 100 countries will come together to focus on the theme of “Fair and Responsible AI for Consumers”.

4. Innovation as the route to opportunity 

Technological advances have the potential to transform lives for the better – so making sure that people remain the focus of these developments is a priority for consumer advocacy.

For energy systems, this means building business models that support the equitable distribution of increasingly affordable home technologies such as solar panels, batteries and efficient electrical devices. ‘One-stop-shop’ integrated advice hubs are a way to do this, as our new report, Designing a One-Stop-Shop for Consumer Renewable Energy Systems, points out.

There is genuine enthusiasm about low-carbon technologies. “Electric vehicles already appear to be identified as ‘desirable,’ ‘stylish’ and ‘fashionable’ by a growing number of consumers,” our Global Consumer Archetypes to Foster Sustainable Living report says.

Governments, consumer groups and businesses need to collaborate to create smart policies and information campaigns in order to make the most of this interest and spread sustainable technologies and practices more widely.

Harnessing technology to make the most of data can also propel progress on sustainability, by showing consumers easy ways to shift from intention to action. Clear and consolidated information on a product’s green credentials are essential, the UN Environment Programme’s Sheila Aggarwal-Khan told the closing session, saying this can avoid the information overload that often prevents people making the best choices.

Innovation is needed in areas beyond technology. Even consumer groups need to adapt to changing times. The President, of Consumers International Dr Marimuthu Nadason, used Congress to announce an expansion of the Consumers International network. Consumers International invites new and innovative consumer advocacy organisations around the world to join the movement.  And through our Change Network, we will be inviting organisations across sectors to join us in our work. By raising our ambitions, we can also raise our impact.





The way forward

Dialogue is always just the first step when it comes to building better consumer protection, but there was a real sense at Congress of a desire for concrete action, and an impatience to get things done.

The past four years have undeniably been a challenge. The rise of disruptive digital technologies, the intensifying climate crisis and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis mean the four years leading up to our Global Congress 2027 will be challenging too.

But we have to act out of hope, not fear. A fair, safe and sustainable future for consumers is achievable. Working together will be the only way to achieve it.