By Julie Hunter
From sustainability to vulnerability, we’re fighting for the protection of our families, friends and neighbours. Together, our voices will be heard.
World Consumer Rights Day, observed on 15 March, is a chance to raise global awareness about consumer rights and call for change. The United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (UNGCP), which underpin the work of the global consumer movement, define consumer rights relating to sustainability, inclusion, e-commerce, safety, information and redress.
Consumers need protection now more than ever. Climate change, digitalization, the cost-of-living crisis and a volatile energy market – combined with the lingering effects of COVID-19 – all create challenges and risks for consumers in their everyday lives.
Speaking up for consumers
I believe that standards can play an important role in empowering and protecting consumers. However, consumers must be at the heart of standards development to unlock this potential. Consumer stakeholders offer valuable insight into what real people need, how they behave and the problems they face in their daily lives. This helps to create better standards that lead to safer, fairer and more sustainable goods and services.
Keeping pace with emerging threats to consumer rights, and ensuring that standards mitigate those risks, is a big challenge. To address it, the UK’s Consumer and Public Interest Network (CPIN) and the ISO Committee on consumer policy (COPOLCO) strive to ensure effective consumer representation on standards. CPIN, an independent network of trained experts who speak up for consumers in British Standards, collaborates with leading consumer organizations, through BSI’s Consumer Forum, to strengthen the consumer stakeholder voice. The British Standards Institution (BSI), ISO’s member for the UK, and the UK government support CPIN and the Forum, demonstrating their commitment to include all relevant stakeholders in the standards-making process.
Supporting consumer rights
This year, World Consumer Rights Day focuses on clean energy transitions – how to deliver the rapid change our planet needs whilst guaranteeing sustainability, security and affordability for consumers. Sustainability is a top priority for CPIN, so I was pleased to attend the launch of the London Declaration in 2021, to celebrate ISO’s commitment to combat climate change through standards. Now, I look forward to attending the 44th COPOLCO plenary in May 2023, where we will focus on enabling sustainable consumption and explore how standards can help responsible businesses deliver more sustainable choices for consumers.
Inclusion is another of CPIN’s five priority areas, and an important consumer right. I’ve always been passionate about improving outcomes for all consumers, particularly those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable, so I was keen to step forward to represent UK consumers on ISO 22458, ISO’s new standard on consumer vulnerability, and its predecessor BS 18477. A CPIN/COPOLCO initiative, ISO 22458 is a critical standard for today’s society.
A gathering storm
Anyone can be vulnerable at any time. Over the last decade, we have developed a broader understanding of the wide range of risk factors that can contribute to vulnerability. We recognize that personal situations and life events such as bereavement, job loss, debt, family break-ups, as well as physical and mental health, can have a serious effect on a person’s ability to understand, communicate and make decisions.
More recently, the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated vulnerability worldwide, and the impacts will be long-lasting. The FCA, the UK’s financial regulator, estimates that the first year of COVID-19 created an additional 3.7 million vulnerable consumers, with 53 % of UK adults being vulnerable in some way. In the UK, we have seen good uptake of vulnerability standards in essential services (e.g. energy, water, finance), but there’s an urgent need for ISO 22458 to be implemented more widely so that everyone can get the support they need through difficult times.
Inclusion by design
ISO 22458 gives practical guidance to service providers on how to identify consumers in vulnerable situations, understand the impacts of vulnerability, and provide meaningful and tailored support – through research, analysis and consumer engagement. Service providers can be reluctant to gather large amounts of data, particularly on sensitive topics like vulnerability. But there are smart and ethical ways they can use data “for good” to understand their customers’ experiences and meet their needs.
To minimize harm, service providers need to be proactive, designing systems and processes that are inclusive. The investment is worth it. By making services accessible to people with a diverse range of needs and abilities, a business can increase its customer base, improve outcomes, reduce complaints and boost its reputation.
ISO 22458 drives inclusivity by encouraging service providers to think about accessibility at all “touchpoints”; these include the service environment, published materials, telephone and online services. The standard promotes a range of contact methods so that people can choose which best suits them. It recognizes that digital exclusion is a major issue, but also that some people may prefer online interactions if they don’t feel comfortable speaking about their personal life.
Protecting consumers of the future
The challenges that consumers face today won’t be the same in years to come. That’s why CPIN has to be agile in its approach, using consumer principles (based on the UNGCP) to deliver good consumer outcomes that can withstand market change. For example, ISO 22458 is built on nine guiding principles that should underpin inclusive service provision.
I’ve always enjoyed my work in consumer protection, but it feels especially relevant in the current climate. Helping to create standards that meet consumer needs and reduce harm is very rewarding. With all stakeholders working together, we can create standards that make a real difference to people’s lives and help to protect consumer rights in a fast-changing world.
About the author
Julie Hunter is an independent consultant, researcher and writer with 25 years’ experience in consumer advocacy and protection. She has collaborated with leading UK and international consumer organizations, including Which?, BEUC and Consumers International.
Julie is Chair of the Consumer & Public Interest Network (CPIN), an independent organization that represents consumers in the development of British Standards, and represents the UK on the Chair’s Advisory Group at COPOLCO, ISO’s committee on consumer policy.