Friday, July 27, 2012

Financial services on the agenda at UNCTAD

Financial services—it’s complicated. And that’s why we need to ensure consumers are protected.  CI’s Robin Simpson urges inclusion of financial services in the UN’s Guidelines on Consumer Protection. 

At the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meeting in Geneva recently, CI made the case for inclusion of financial services in the Guidelines on Consumer Protection (UNGCP), including:

  • universal access to basic financial services;
  • better design and disclosure of information;
  • mandatory requirements for comprehensibility of financial products; and
  • representation of consumer interests in the governance of the sector, both regulation and redress.
 We believe that, where states have bailed out ailing banks, competition enquiries should be carried out to ascertain whether these assistance packages have increased concentration. This is sensitive territory for a conference whose agenda was dominated by competition issues.

We also called for measures to guarantee stability of deposits stronger than the diluted provisions that were included in the G20/OECD high level principles that we found too limited.

There was a strong measure of agreement in the hall that FS is not, or no longer, solely a rich country issue. Indeed, one of the encouraging aspects of the present troubled times is the emergence of innovative services such as branchless banking in developing countries, whose consumers report savings ratios far in excess of those of the OECD countries, between 30-40% of household income.

As CI board member Connie Lau of the Hong Kong Consumer Council pointed out, these dwarf the puny rates to be found in the first decade of this century in the US where some estimates show a negative rate in some years. 

Our colleague Sothi Racahagan from Malaysia made a clarion call for stronger regulatory action and Phil Evans from the UK Competition Commission made the strong case on behavioural grounds for FS not being treated like any other sector.

Complex products with long-term effects, the impacts of which will not be known for years to come, all add up to a dangerous cocktail of ingredients that require far stronger measures than we have seen so far.

Maybe inclusion of FS in the UNGCP will make some much-needed changes a reality.

Now for the hard part.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The planet needs a silver-bullet solution, but Rio wasn’t it

CI’s Luis Flores reflects on the results of the Rio+20 Summit and what they mean for consumers.

Trying to solve the world’s most pressing and complex environmental and social problems by convening the very governments stuck in gridlock the last 20 years was never going to be a silver-bullet solution.

And after Rio+20 it is clear that an old-style UN conference with member countries negotiating a ‘consensus’ agreement is no longer the ideal medium for change.

However, despite the initial dismay over the results of the Summit, there was cause for at least a somewhat sedated celebration for the consumer rights movement.

First, sustainable consumption and production (SCP) was acknowledged as a fundamental issue. The so-called 'ten year framework of programmes' that will support governments developing national and regional programmes on SCP was also endorsed by governments on a voluntary basis.

It will be further developed in this year's negotiations at the UN General Assembly. The Rio agreement also specifically links sustainable consumption to the Sustainable Development Goals which will be the subject of more work under the UN framework.

Determined to avoid another Copenhagen and an evident failure of the environmental multilateral system, the government negotiators at Rio+20 wanted above all to be able to come out with a completed agreement and that is exactly what they did at the end of the process.

But, given the results and the lack of ambition of the official outcome document, which had been negotiated over the last nine months and finalised just before the start of the Summit, many were unhappy.

It is not necessary to understand the economics of development in great detail to have a view on the case for urgent action. Sustainability is needed now.

The question is no longer whether unsustainable growth is contributing to the global crisis or not, but how vast and irreversible the damages are going to be.

In the coming years, the entire world will have to step into a transition stage leading to real sustainable development; therefore, joint and coordinated action is necessary.

Isolated initiatives will not be enough, and neither will the sustainable purchasing decisions of the enlightened few. Governments will need to act; and companies will need to stop hiding behind perceived consumer inertia as an excuse for inaction.

International cooperation will have to put less emphasis on what a fair distribution of responsibilities should be, and more stress on the actions that – if undertaken as a joint endeavour – will neutralize negative effects on people’s lives and livelihood.

All of the public awareness that we have experienced recently should give us enough hope to continue with our efforts. Indeed, when surveyed, an increasing number of consumers express a desire to consume ‘green’ – but lack the access to do so.

For our part, CI is currently reviewing our work on sustainable consumption in order to identify where we, as a network of more than 240 consumer organisations in 115 countries, can best contribute to this global challenge. We hope to have the results in time for a renewed effort at the start of 2013.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Supermarket investigation reveals a false choice

Zoya Sheftalovich and Elise Dalley of CHOICE, Australia, discuss the pressure that big supermarkets place on their suppliers – and what this means for consumers. 

Australia has a highly-concentrated supermarket sector. Our two big players, Coles and Woolworths, control more than 70% of the market. 

Anecdotally, CHOICE had been hearing for a while that relationships between the supermarkets and their suppliers and manufacturers were strained. People were ringing us to complain of their favourite products disappearing from supermarkets, and we became aware of a trend – seemingly successful product lines were being squeezed off the shelves by home brand products.

As a consumer watchdog, there was some reticence in the office about us looking into these reports – surely supermarkets increasing their home brand product lines would be beneficial to consumers, as long as these cheaper products provided good value and quality for consumers. But our members were increasingly upset, and we knew we had to investigate.

Extreme tactics

After asking our members to tell us about products they had noticed disappearing off the shelves, we compiled a list of dozens. We then got on the phone, calling manufacturers for several days.

We heard the same story again and again: yes, product lines had been deleted, with little or no notice, and for seemingly no reason. Yes, tactics leading up to the deletion had been extreme. No, I won’t go on the record. No, I can’t talk to you in more detail. No, you can’t use my name. I need the supermarkets, and I cannot afford to antagonise them.

And it was not just small manufacturers that were feeling the pain. Several large-scale operators spoke obliquely about the harsh Australian grocery market, but clammed up when it came to giving details.

But perseverance paid off, and several sources finally agreed to tell us their stories off the record. One even agreed to have his name put to his allegations.
What we heard was terrible in its implications for manufacturers and suppliers, but was also detrimental to consumers – the supermarkets seemingly had no qualms about using their buying power to push suppliers to the brink, and the number of people we spoke to who were either on the precipice of losing their businesses, or had already done so, was frightening. The competition from the supermarkets was wiping out the competition altogether.

Worrying signs

From demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for marketing, to setting unrealistic sales targets, to hiding products behind vertical columns in store and releasing their own, home brand products in deceptively similar packaging, the tactics used by the supermarkets were worrying.

Was this what consumers wanted? We didn’t think so.

When we published our series of investigations looking at the situation on the shelves, the copycat tactics of home brand products, and the emerging issue of incognito home brand wine, the response was resounding. We received messages of support from a huge number of our members.

And over a thousand people voted in our poll for the best (or is it worst?) copycat product. The winner?  Coles home brand sunscreen, which came in a tube that looked uncannily like the one put out by Australia’s national cancer NGO, the Cancer Council, the proceeds of which go to cancer research.

When two supermarkets control such a large share of the grocery market, no product is safe, and the consumer is not always king.

You can read the full details of our supermarket investigation here: