Information Guide on Consumer Rights and Responsibilities
This section provides background information and ideas to the consumer educator on the following:
- The role of the consumer as a member of the society;
- The value system that consumer can promote;
- The 8 rights of the consumers;
- The 5 responsibilities of consumers; and
- The 5 roles and contributions of consumer associations
1. What is the role of a consumer as a member of society?
Consumers are not individuals isolated from the rest of society. They are part of the society. Hence, the actions of individuals do not affect them as individuals, but in many cases impinge on society as a whole.
Role 1: The consumer must become fully aware of his/her actions on others and society in general. This critical awareness must become the organising principle of decision making and action.
The word "consumer" has a negative meaning and connotation. Consumers must become aware of this negative aspect. According to Wayne Ellwood1, " Consumers have been seen as de-personalised machines, one-dimensional human beings whose only purpose is to absorb the non-stop flow of trinkets spit out by the conveyer belt of modern industry."
Role 2: The consumer has to change this negative perception to a positive one. Consumers must begin to be responsible and discriminating individuals in their chioces and decisions.
In essence, the consumer movement is helping to do this. According to Wayne Elwood2, "The birth of the modern consumer movement was based on the belief that people could rally together under a common banner. Not to share their alienation, but to heighten their shared collective identity. Consumers could reclaim the word "consumer", wrench it from its narrow definition within the market system and fight to eventually turn "consumers" into ordinary people."
Role 3: What this means is that consumers must become more human and humane in their decisions and actions. Also, they must join and contribute to the struggle and work of the consumer movement.
According to Anwar Fazal, "the act of buying is a vote for an economic and social model, for a particular way of producing goods. We are concerned with the quality of goods and the satisfaction we derive from them. But we cannot ignore the condition under which the products are made – the environmental impact and working conditions. We are linked to them and have a responsibility to them3."
Role 4: The next important role of consumers is to ensure that our act of buying contributes towards a fair, just and equitable economic and social model that is life-centred and sustainable.
We are increasingly becoming aware that certain products are manufactured using cheap labour and under inhuman conditions. We must reject such products unless conditions are improved. We are becoming aware that chemical pesticides pollute the food chain and water sources. We must reject buying and consuming such products. As enlighten consumers we must send strong messages by not buying such products. Through critical awareness and responsible act of buying we can promote a fair, just, equitable and sustainable development.
2. What values can the consumer promote?
By acting to transform the negative connotation of the meaning of "consumers" to a positive one and exercising our act of buying judiciously, we as consumers can promote five important values. This value system has the potential to contribute to the promotion of a fair, just and equitable economic and social system. These values are4:
- Value for money
Consumers, either as workers, professionals, business people, traders and investors earn incomes often through hard work. This hard-earned income should give consumers adequate purchasing power. In other words, such income must have adequate value. Consumers must ensure for the benefit of all, not to contribute to any loss in the value of our hard-earned income brought about by indiscriminate purchases and wasteful spending habits. Such actions can contribute to price increases and inflation. Price increases and inflation has the impact of eroding away the value of our money. We begin to get less for our money.
- Value to people
As responsible consumers, we must ensure that our consumption patterns and lifestyles do not contribute to the economic exploitation and oppression that disregards human and humane values. For example, if maunfacturers use child labour or cause destruction to indigenous communities or portray women as sex symbols in their advertisements, it is important for us as consumers to boycott the purchase and use of such products. By so doing, we are sending a clear message that there must be value for people in the production, sale and use of all products and services.
- Value to the environment
The pre-condition for the life-support system to continue to function, is an ecologically balanced environment that is able to regenerate itself on an uninterrupted continuous basis. People as consumers can contribute to sustainable development if we begin to become aware that we are the cause of the problem of environmental degradation. If we become aware of this and transform ourselves to become part of the solution, we can ensure value for environment. This contributes to development that is sustainable.
- Value to democracy
All consumers are an integral part of civil society. Civil society is the primary society from which emanates the concept of "sovereignty". As members of the civil society, the consumers give mandate to members of civil society through the process of election to govern them. Government in a democracy is the servant of the people, and citizens as consumers have a right to government services that are responsible, transparent and accountable. The role of consumers in ensuring democracy is an integral responsibility of citizenship. Value of democracy is only possible if consumers as citizen play their role with great responsibility. We must get involved actively in the process of governance.
- Value to Justice
The ultimate value of human civilisation lies in the fact that there is a rule of law, justice and peace. Consumers, through their role as consumers and citizens, owe a responsibility to ensure value for justice, not only for us as consumers but also for the trader, the investor and others involved in the economic and social system. In addition, we must not forget to ensure justice to our life-support system on which our survival is dependent. We have a responsibility of stewardship to the conservation and protection of the environment.
3. What are the universal consumer rights?
The global movement has articulated 8 universal rights for consumers as follows:
- Basic needs: The right to basic goods and services which guarantee survival: adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and sanitation.
- Safety: The right to be protected against the marketing of goods or the provision of services that are hazardous to health and life.
- Information: The right to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising or labelling. And the right to be given the facts and information needed to make an informed choice.
- Choice: The right to choose products and services at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality.
- Representation: The right to express consumer interest in the making and execution of government policy.
- Redress: The right to be compensated for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services.
- Consumer education: The right to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be an informed consumer.
- Healthy environment: The right to live and work in an environment which is neither threatening nor dangerous and which permits a life of dignity and well being.
4. What are the consumer responsibilities?
Consumer education must inculcate the responsibilities of the consumer as well. Responsibilities always precede rights. If consumers want their rights recognised, they must first exercise their responsibilities. These responsibilities are:
- Critical Awareness: The responsibility to be more alert and questioning about the price and quality of the goods and services we use,.
- Action: The responsibility to assert ourselves and act to ensure that we get a fair deal. As long as we remain passive consumers, we will be exploited.
- Social Concerns: The responsibility to be aware of the impact of our consumption on other citizens, especially disadvantaged or powerless groups whether in the local, national or international community.
- Environmental Awareness: The responsibility to understand the environmental consequences of our consumption. We should recognise our individual and social responsibility to conserve natural resources and protect the earth for future generations.
- Solidarity: The responsibility to organise together as consumers to develop the strength and influence to promote and protect our interests.
5. What are the roles and contributions of consumer associations?
Consumers need to join and support consumer associations because a consumer association has an important role to play and contributions to make. The 5 roles and contributions identified are5:
Role 1: Community Development Centre
Consumer associations are in fact associations for community development. They provide community development services, ensuring "goods, services and gifts of nature" are utilised for the "common good" of all. They also educate and create awareness amongst consumers to play their role in a responsible manner.
Role 2: Community Advisory and Support Centre
Consumer associations play an important role in providing advice to consumers and helping them in time of need to seek redress and a fair deal in the market place. Such a watchdog and support role keeps things checked and under control.
Role 3: Community Information Centre
Another role and function of consumer associations is to conduct research, gather information and disseminate such information to consumers. This is to enable consumer to make informed choices, right decisions, and protect them from unscrupulous trade practices.
Role 4: Community Education Centre
Imparting and disseminating consumer education to the community is another important role of the consumer association. The best consumer protection is self-protection. Consumers require consumer education to protect themselves in the market place.
Role 5: Centre for Consumer Protection
The most important role of a consumer association is to advocate consumer protection. Consumer associations must be vigilant all the time and proactively advocate consumer protection, particularly in ensuring adequate laws and regulations and their enforcement.
4 These ideas were drawn the views of various consumers activists around the world and articulated in this form by Bishan Singh at the 10 Anniversary Celebration of the Pahang Association of Consumers (PAC) under the theme "Pancacara Perjuangan Pengguna" or "The Five Principles of Consumer Activism" Back