Experts at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) annual global forum on consumer issues, have ruled that consumers hold the key to a sustainable future for the endangered planet, where prosperity for all will no longer cost the earth.
A consumer with accurate information, effective protection and solid rights – both online and offline – is a powerful force for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, various experts shared with governments at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in the second week of this July.
UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General, Isabelle Durant, said ‘’in the face of the climate crisis threatening the survival of humanity, and growing inequalities that undermine social peace, consumers have a decisive power to weigh in and set a new course for development.’’
She observed that consumption accounts for 60% of the global Gross Domestic Product, and so consumers are not just passive buyers. Their choices determine the sustainability of economic development.
Sustainable consumption is not only about middle-class consumers who buy in large supermarkets, as it affects all populations in developed and developing countries.
‘’We need smart consumption’’, Durant said, calling for policies that protect and equip consumers with full knowledge of the economic, social and environmental impacts of their choices.
Such policies could empower people to be ‘consumer-actors’ and forge a more sustainable future for all. But it is not the responsibility of governments alone. Businesses must also do the same and improve the sustainability of the product life cycle, the meeting heard.
Deputy Chair of the Consumer Protection Tribunal of South Africa, Laura Best, said ‘’we don’t have time. We need to act now and shift the centre of gravity. In doing so, we need to adopt a future-sensitive posture and actively nurture sustainably minded consumers.’’
Consumers already recognize their responsibility for adopting sustainable lifestyles, said Consumers International’s Director General, Helena Leurent.
But they also want to see action from manufactures and governments to bring about change.
‘’We all feel an urgency to address sustainable consumption. Consumer attitudes are changing and more people want companies to design products that are sustainable’’, Leurent said.
However, the world must change both production and consumption patterns to foster sustainable and inclusive development for all, the meeting heard.
Professor of law at Quebec University in Canada, Thierry Bourgoignie, said ‘’it would be both useless and unfair to require consumers to be more responsible and change their behaviour if the production pattern itself remains unchanged and unsustainable.’’
While adding that sustainable development and consumer protection policy were closely interrelated, he said, ‘’by placing emphasis on the long-term and collective needs of citizens and society at large, sustainable development gives consumer policy the opportunity for a salutary change.’’
Consumer protection lies at the heart of the most-effective policies, various experts said.
UNCTAD’s Director of International Trade and Commodities, Pamela Coke-Hamilton. Said ‘’consumers who know their rights and enforce them are thus empowered and subject to fewer abuses. This directly improves their welfare’’, pointing out that consumer protection policy fits well under the UN’s 17 global goals to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change while ensuring that no one is left behind.
While Coke-Hamilton noted that consumer protection was particularly critical to the achievement of goals 12 (on responsible consumption and production), 8 (on decent work and economic growth), 10 (on reducing inequalities) and 17 (on partnerships), she urged countries to follow the UN guidelines for consumer protection in crafting and enforcing domestic and regional laws, rules and regulations that are suitable to their own contexts.
The guidelines call for the participation of other stakeholders, including consumer groups and the private sector.
‘’Cooperation across-borders is paramount for effective enforcement, especially in the digital era’’, Coke-Hamilton said. ‘’We must ‘network the networks’ and deepen international cooperation.’’
This includes managing market concentration in the digital economy.
The digital era has spawned challenges to existing national consumer protection regulatory frameworks, experts said.
Professor of law at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, Claudia Lima Marques, said ‘’enforcement agencies are facing problems with social media, data protection, digital contracts and new kinds of cross-border fraudulent schemes.’’
She said automatisation and increased connectivity had not only quickened the pace of life, but also handed immense power over our lives to a few technology companies, adding, ‘’our choices are being controlled more and more by intermediaries – the middlemen – with long-term and complex contract relations.’’
According to her, traditional consumer law and national laws are not enough to deal with the sweeping power wielded by the digital giants. ‘’We need to develop new tools and global standards to face these challenges to ensure consumer protection in the digital age’’, Marques said.
She argued that new tools and standards could enhance access and inclusion, trust in the digital marketplace and ensure effective dispute resolution and redress for consumers.