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A Reflection on Consumer Rights

As we mark World Consumer Rights Day in March, there is a good reason to make it a sort of sounding board to look back, think, pause, and see where consumers—which means all of us—stand with regard to their rights. Too many changes are happening and at a fast pace, thanks in a large measure to the communication revolution. Are these also changing how we will be exercising our rights in the future – do we need to prepare ourselves?

Dr Savita Hanspal

Let us begin with the right to access necessary goods and services – that is, food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare. The impending shortages, the impact of climate change, privatization and the profit greed, growing unemployment and high inflation in many countries have made it difficult for middle-class consumers to access the necessary goods and services, while for the poor of the world the misery has deepened. For the rich, this right is never challenged – they have plenty of resources to get an assured supply for themselves. 

This scenario is not short-term – one is staring at the near future, which will see many lands turning barren or being converted to alternative uses to accommodate a growing population. The debate on genetically modified (GM) crops hovers around feeding millions at the cost of adversely impacting the health of consumers. The definition of necessary goods and services is changing, too. We need to respond to this as well.

Then, consumers have a right to safe products and processes. Comparative testing, standards and certifications have helped improve quality and sustain it to an extent. So, what we can ask of ourselves is: are we happy with third-party certifications that are known to have been bought for money? What about marketers getting reviews written for money or favours? Do they affect our assessment of products or services? We still need to deal with products that are quickly rendered outdated just so that people have no option but to replace them faster—willingly or not, thereby ensuring business profits continue to grow. Despite measures to obtain better quality goods, every day we come across adulterated products, involving use of ingredients, colours, insecticides and pesticides that increasingly are harmful to the health of consumers and the environment. There is a severe lack of penalties and punishments that may act as a deterrent, and so we continue to fight a never-ending battle on a case-by-case basis.

The UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection outlined eight basic rights to consumers all over the world. These are:

1. Right to access necessary goods and services
2. Right to safety
3. Right to information
4. Right to choose
5. Right to be heard
6. Right to appeal and lodge a complaint
7. Right to consumer education
8. Right to sustainability

Between the lines

The right to information that is fair and accurate is fundamental. Yet, neither self-regulation nor laws have been able to eliminate misleading information and false claims. On the contrary, as consumers become better educated, and have better means to seek information, they are required to exercise greater caution. Terms that are unfavourable to consumer interests are sneaked into contracts in fine print, and there is a cleverer use of language to trap them into making higher payments, including luring them into the price and perceived quality games. There are so many claims that it is practically impossible for an ordinary consumer to navigate through them and then feel assured that they made the right choice. While technology has enabled extensive search for product information, this source is in the control of the marketers. Offers are changed without notice and consumers are subjected to the revised terms of offer; many a times the consumers are put in a disadvantageous position if they did not print out the offer and kept a record of it.

As far as the right to choose is concerned, there is indeed a great variety available to consumers today to choose from; so much so that consumers often feel they are unable to decide what to buy. The variety we get is a result of competition, but competition is good only so long as it is not wasteful. Too often, competitors differ in only how they charge you for their products and services, rather than in terms of their offers. As far as the consumer is concerned, he continues to pay the same irrespective of whether he buys from A or B. Businesses compete and continue to put in large amounts of funds in advertising – a cost that we as consumers bear. There is no check on this expenditure. We are silent spectators of the ad wars fought at the cost of charging higher prices. And so it is that businesses laugh all the way to the bank.

In countries where online media are used to advertise, the cost of advertising is reduced but it never translates into savings for consumers. They continue to pay the same price or even a higher one while quantities are reduced. The suppliers merge or acquire firms or collude with each other in the name of efficiency, but the consumers get no rewards from the efficiencies achieved. Consumers pay higher prices for services where advance booking or tickets are required – a practice that is very good for sellers but unnecessarily expensive for consumers who did not plan and do it in advance. Consumers who do the advance buying, however, get no returns on the money they blocked on booking tickets several months in advance, providing short-term funds for businesses free of interest! 

We still need to deal with products that are quickly rendered outdated just so that people have no option but to replace them faster—willingly or not, thereby ensuring business profits continue to grow.

A fine contract it is

There are contract terms and charges, often exorbitant, which force the consumer to stay with a service supplier even if they are not satisfied with the service. More and more marketers are refusing to accept returns or are reducing the time available for returning goods and services. So the right of the consumer to choice is, in effect, getting severely compromised. The use of price scanners has virtually brought bargaining to an end. The use of the scanner does not always mean that the consumer is charged the right price—they need to remain alert always. 

The after-sales services are being increasingly provided on the basis of customer lifetime value and his capacity towards contributing to the profitability of the organization. So, companies do not mind losing customers who are more demanding. Strategies like price discrimination and product or service differentiation are restricting a consumer’s freedom of choice.

Looking at it from the point of efficient use of resources to promote sustainability, we cannot justify the duplicity of efforts and the resultant waste. Related to the right to choose is also the waste resulting from creative destruction – the war for newer models, newer applications. And so, what we learn to do is shop, shop and shop, till we are either bankrupt or dead. Do we ponder about the social and environmental consequences of our consumption? Do we need to take a second look at what we want and where do we go from here?

Turns out to be conditional

Consumers have the right to be heard. We have been able to motivate businesses to set up helplines, or provide contact information, but we continue to wait on telephone lines to hear from the suppliers and marketers. More often than not, to reach a customer service person means having to listen to the offers and new promotions run by the provider. And then we often have to feel the frustration of the interactive voice responses. Was this the real
intent behind this right? Even if we are lucky enough to be able to reach the product or service providers promptly, are we able to get satisfactory resolution of complaints? If court complaints are an indicator, this right too has been compromised. Many service and product providers charge extra for warranties and insurances to provide the normal level of service expected and enable hassle-free usage of products and services, in effect increasing the cost of the product or service for the ultimate consumer. 

The right to appeal or file a case against the business is getting compromised too, because agreements and service contracts include an arbitration clause and a clause that takes away the consumer’s legal right to action, in case his complaint is not heard. We have special courts and procedures of mediation to expedite the justice delivery process, but they are geared towards favouring the mighty marketer rather than the single hapless consumer. The consumer is handed over a pittance after a protracted battle of several years. We have not been able to rein in medical and other insurers from taking advantage of exclusionary clauses and leaving the insured high and dry.

The right to consumer education has been a compelling area. Consumers have been able to make businesses become more transparent and upfront about billing for products and services. While technology has played a big role, it is also putting the responsibility of action on the consumer. A patient is increasingly being required to opt in or out of treatments on the basis of his judgement and understanding, and not that of the doctor who is an expert in the field. Patients have no control over the cost of their treatment – they are at the mercy of insurance companies for approval.

But the earth needs to endure

The right to sustainability has been the most violated. Not only that businesses have exploited natural resources and paid little attention to the impact of their activities on polluting the basic supplies like air, water and food required for human consumption; they have also been encouraging wasteful consumption, materialism and individualism to extremes to meet profit targets. They have been playing with consumer emotions to further their own profit-making objectives on the one hand, and providing unhealthy working conditions, poor wages and job insecurity to their workers on the other hand.

In countries where governments are vigilant and take actions to protect consumers, the plight of consumers is better; but where there is no regulation, self-regulation has not succeeded to provide consumers the assurance that their rights are important and will be protected. The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have an important role to play in advocating consumer interests, as individual consumers may find themselves incapable of protecting their rights for lack of awareness, knowledge and expertise in the field. They have to become proactive and at the same time they should be swift, committed and persevering in reaction to irresponsible practices affecting consumers adversely.

Having said that, as consumers have we paid attention to the unfair practices of businesses we buy from and appreciated or rewarded them for their responsible actions? Also, do we need to exercise the right to our privacy? Do  we need to demand this be recognized as one important consumer right? Have we been smart consumers or have we been led by our own personal enjoyment of goods and services, without caring for the consequences for vulnerable consumers, society and environmental resources? Have we been responsible in using our own rights and have we ever considered the impact of our own consumption behaviours on the future of a sustainable world? If we have not, then now is the time to look at both our rights as consumers and how we exercise and enforce them in a way that business starts adopting responsible practices. We can take heart from the fact that the answer to many of the above questions lies with us. 

Savita Hanspal is associate professor, Kamala Nehru College, Delhi.

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