In the 20th century, the presence and influence of the market grew dramatically in consumer life. We began to purchase things from the market for a price. Soon, mass production and industrial production came into being, giving the consumer world an entirely new dimension. Have you ever wondered how much urban consumers depend on the market for fulfilment of even their basic needs. This over-dependence on the market and the inherent profit motive in mass production and sales has given manufacturers, and dealers a good reason to exploit consumers. As a consumer, you would know how market products are constantly under-weight, of inferior quality and do not prescribe to quality standards specified by quality-control agencies. Consumers not only do not get value for their money but also often have to suffer losses and inconvenience due to market manipulations.
The 8 Consumer Rights
In order to safeguard consumer interest, 6 consumer rights were initially envisioned by consumer rights activists of the West, namely:
- Right to Safety
- Right to Information
- Right to Choice
- Right to be Heard
- The Right to Redress
- The right to consumer education
These rights were conceptualized in the developed world's consumer context where consumers are wealthy and completely dependent on the market to fullfil their needs. These rights had to be redefined keeping in mind the realities of a developing country like India. Consequently, two very important rights were added viz.:
- The Right to Basic Needs and
- The right to a healthy and sustained environment.
Right to Basic Needs
Access to food, water and shelter are the basis of any consumer's life. Without these fundamental amenities, life cannot exist. In September 2001, India's stock of foodgrains were around 60 million tonnes, yet one third of the Indian population lives below the poverty line and consumers often go hungry or remain severely malnourished, leading to poor health. The recent starvation deaths in Orissa are a case in point. A very crucial objective of the conceptualisation and existence of consumer rights is to ensure that consumers have an assured food supply, safe and permanent dwellings, basic amenities of life like sanitation and potable water, and power supply.
Urbanisation is seen as a mark of development but for rural migrant population, living conditions in cities is very poor. The population of cities is growing rapidly in India and after 1988, the percentage of urban poor has been more than that of the rural poor. Around 20 to 25 per cent of the urban households live in slums, make-shift colonies or refugee settlements due to non-availability of affordable and decent habitat in urban areas. . According to some estimates, in urban areas alone, there is a housing shortage of 17 million units. This has led to a habitat crisis in Indian cities. In rural India, the situation is equally bad, with a large part of the population still living in make-shift dwellings and hutment. With non-permanent housing comes lack of sanitation facilities and other amenities like running water and electricity supply. Due to burgeoning population, most people do not have access to dry toilets in rural and urban areas.
Food Security for Consumers
The recent deaths of poor people in Orissa due to starvation in August 2001 have indicated that food security is still a myth of a section of the Indian consumers. To solve this food scarcity problem, the Government of India mooted the PDS (Public Distribution System) to help reach foodgrain to the masses at subsidized rates through government-run ‘Fair Price Shops'. There are about 4.5 lakh Fair Price Shops all over India of which 3.05 are in rural areas and 0.94 in urban areas. On an average there is 1 PDS shop for every 2000 consumers. Yet, many parts of India still suffer from food shortages. Poor distribution and under-utilisation of food grains has led to artificially-created food scarcities in the country. Presently, there are 60 million tonnes of foodgrain in terms of buffer stock in Indian godowns. This foodgrain is rotting due to unutlisation and improper storage facilities. The need of the hour is to channelise this stock towards needy consumers and offer them ‘food for work' programmes, which will not only give them employment but also money. Besides making sure that there is enough food accessible to consumers at all times, nutrition is another area which the health of children and the vulnerable sections of population is at stake. This is an area where consumers can take responsibility for ensuring that quality is added to their basic food supply.
Right to Safe Environment
For urban consumers, environment means parks, gardens, and deteriorating air and water quality. Most urban areas are bereft of any wildlife and people are unaware of the biodiversity around them. On the other hand, rural consumers rely on their environment for fulfilment of their basic needs.
The need for environmental conservation is seen as a necessary defence against deteriorating quality of life world-wide. We are all victims of contaminated food and water supply, pesticide-ridden food, adulterated milk and choking exhaust fumes emitting from vehicles. According to a World Bank report, India is being pushed back due to its high environmental costs. We lose around Rs 24,500 crores every year in terms of air and water pollution alone. If you live in a city, you must have experienced air and water pollution at some point of time. Children often fall ill due to polluted environments, it leads to increased health costs and discomfort for consumers. Valuable resources and man-days are lost due to polluted environment and living conditions. Consumers need to understand that only a safe environment can ensure the fulfilment of their consumer rights.
If we look closely at our immediate surroundings and our consumption patterns, we would find that we, ourselves, are responsible for causing environmental pollution to a certain extent. For instance, our monthly purchases include various kinds of washing detergents, toilet cleaning acids and chemicals like Harpic or Sanifresh, and a lot of non-biodegradable packaging for pre-packed food products. This leads to environmental problems like water and soil pollution, and waste disposal problems. It also shows that our consumption patterns are closely linked with the state of the environment and that environmental damage is mostly a result of irresponsible consumer behaviour.
International Standards for Safeguarding Right to Safe Environment
Consumers International (a nodal agency of consumer organisations from all over the world) has made certain guidelines for ensuring consumers' right to safe environment.Consumers should be protected from environmental pollution by:
- Promoting the use of products which are environmentally sustainable.
- Encouraging recycling
- Requiring environmentally dangerous products to carry appropriate warnings and instructions for safe use and disposal.
- Raising consumer awareness of alternatives to toxic products
- Establishing procedures to ensure that products banned overseas do not enter national markets.
- Ensure that the social impacts of pollution are minimised.
- Promote ethical, socially and environmentally responsible practices by producers and suppliers of goods and services.
Right to Safety
Consumer right to safety is as vast in its purview as the market reach itself. It applies to all possible consumption patterns and to all goods and services. In the context of the new market economy and rapid technological advances affecting the market, the right to safety has become a pre-requisite quality in all products and services. For e.g. some Indian products carry the ISI mark, which is a symbol of satisfactory quality of a product. Similarly, the FPO and AGMARK symbolise standard quality of food products. The market has for long made consumers believe that by consuming packaged food or mineral water, consumers can safeguard their health. This notion has been proved wrong time and again due to rampant food adulteration in market products. Right to food safety is an important consumer right since it directly affects the health and quality of life of consumers.
Earlier, the interpretation of the right to safety was limited to electronic products and other such products. Now, its definition has expanded a lot to include safety aspects of new technologies like GM food, food labelling, chemical ingredients in food products etc. In today's scenario of globalisation, consumers have no control over where the products or commodities they use, come from. For instance, the chocolates or syrups we consume, may be manufactured in countries as far as the U.S. or Australia. Consumers in India would have no control over or knowledge of the manufacturing practices of those countries and will have to rely completely on import regulations of the Indian government and food labelling. This makes the consumer right to safety a very important and critical issue for consumers.
GM Food - Safe or No?
Earlier, right to safety meant that a consumer should be protected from health risks of using electronic products like irons, plugs, or other such things. Technological changes have however widened the ambit of this consumer right. The right to safety has now expanded in purview to include GM food. GM food can be Food safety should ensure that consumer has no short-term or long-term adverse health effects due to consumption of GM food. Genetically Modified organisms can be defined as ‘organisms produced as a result of Biotechnological changes or genetic engineering'. GM technology is suspect because making changes in the genetic code alters the entire sequence of the material and that might lead to unintended development of many undesirable traits. For e.g. A virus while in contact with a gene resistant plant may acquire the genetic material ( disease resistant quality) and may become even more dangerous. If any such virus becomes virulent, it may destroy desirable plant species and create serious imbalance in the given eco-system. Also, if a consumer eats GM food products, s/he may develop resistance to anti-biotics or allergies in certain cases.
Safety of natural food products is also a problem of growing concern since due to increased chemical inputs in farms, our food supply is being contaminated with pesticides and chemicals. This poses a grave danger to consumer health. For non-vegetarians, the problem is even more serious since food animals are being fed anti-biotics to fight diseases among animals and boost their growth. This can have serious repercussions on consumer health.
Right to Information
Right to information means the right to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice or decision about factors like quality, quantity, potency, purity standards and price of product or service. The right to information now goes beyond avoiding deception and protection against misleading advertising, improper labelling and other practices. For e.g. when you buy a product or utilise a service, you should be informed about a) how to consume a product b) the adverse health effects of its consumption c) Whether the ingredients used are environment- friendly or not etc .Due to the ever increasing influence of the market and the ever changing scene with price wars and hard-sell techniques, the consumer's right to information becomes even more important. The right to information means much more than simple disclosure of the product's weight or price. A consumer has the right to know how the product has been prepared, whether it has been tested or animals or not, if environmentally-sound techniques and resources have been used in its production processes, what kinds of chemicals are used into its manufacturing and what could be their impact on consumer health. Clearly, a consumer has to consider a lot of factors before s/he buys a product.
Ideally, a consumer should have knowledge of the entire ‘cradle to grave' journey of the product to determine whether its safe and beneficial for use or no. The ‘cradle to grave journey' refers to the processes a product goes through- from the time of it being made out of raw material, the processes of its moulding into its final shape, transportation, labour, ingredients used, to the form in which it ends up on market shelves. It is only when a consumer is aware of the history of the product that he can make informed choices. An example of this is the GM food controversy. GM food is promoted as the answer to world's hunger and malnutrition but its safety for consumers and the environment is yet to be proved. Despite strong lobbying by pro-GM groups and the market, consumers in Europe have campaigned effectively against the entry of GM food into their food chain and markets. There are information and publicity campaigns that have made consumers rally behind a common consumer stand against GM food. As a result, the governments and the European Union have placed strict restrictions on the trial uses of GM technology in the market or in agriculture.
Recently, it has come to light that most cosmetics like lipsticks, kajal and mascara are tested on animals in laboratories to see whether they have any adverse effects on them or no. There was also a controversy about how Nike shoe company was using sweat labour in South Asian countries, paying its workers abysmally low wages for manufacturing shoes. Similarly, there was a ‘McLibel' case against McDonald's alleging that Mc Donald's generated a lot lot of unwanted waste due to its excessive packaging and harmed the environment.
The advertising techniques of many products, directly targeting and featuring children have also been questioned. Many parents don't even know that their children are being targeted by market surveyors to determine their consumption habits by collecting data through surveys, interviews and by offering free samples of products.
It is not just the consumers who use information gathering or disseminating techniques and tools to protect their consumer rights. Information dissemination is also used very extensively by advertisers and the market to get their message across to the consumer. Tools and agencies of information like newspapers, print media, television and the Internet are utilised by marketing of consumer products and services. This has made advertising a multi-million dollar industry in India and also world-wide.
Right to Choice
Different interests can interpret the right to choice in different ways. For the developed world consumers, right to choice translates into more and a variety of products to choose from. For e.g. American consumers can choose from 25,000 super market items, 200 kinds of cereals, and read 11,092 magazines. This kind of choice often gives consumers a sense of well-being and safety and encourages them to believe that abundance leads to good living. The market also perpetuates this line of thought by advertising and promotion gimmicks. The right to choice has a very different definition in developing countries. For a population dependent on the environment for livelihood, the right to choice and other consumer rights need a shift in focus. The focus needs to be on choice of good practices like organic farming and conservation of natural heritage. In cities, people should be able to choose cleaner and safer ways of transportation over polluting ones. Similarly, healthy and fresh food should be chosen over junk food. The right to choose must essentially be a consumer's right to choose a safe and healthy product of good quality over an unsafe or defective product. This can give a consumer immense leverage not just to choose products that are safe but also to influence the practices adopted my the market.
Misinterpretation of choice by market forces has systematically weakened the consumer's position vis-à-vis the market. The market has exploited this situation by interpreting the right to confuse and exploit the consumer
The consumer has been made to believe that more varieties of the same product on the market shelves give him or her the right to choose what s/he wants. In reality, more varieties of the same product just encourages false advertising claims and give the consumer a false sense of choice. Various kinds of shampoos, soaps, and other cosmetics differ merely in colour, smell and brand image. Each one of them claims one-upmanship over the other but gives the consumer very little value for money or a better quality product.
Ever since trade liberalisation in India started taking place, the consumer world has been witnessing increased availability of exotic fruits, vegetables and imported food items. These days, one can buy imported apples that cost Rs 200 a kilo and syrups, jams, sauces, drinks that are manufactured overseas. However, neither the market nor the consumers pay any attention to the over-consumption of resources as a result and its environmental impact. When products are manufactured in distant lands, they have to be packaged and preserved in a special way to last longer. A lot of resources go into its packaging and transportation. All these facts and their impact are often not made known to consumers and they end up harming the environment and paying an exorbitant price for their consumption choices.
Right to be Heard
The right to be heard means that consumers should be allowed to voice their opinions and grievances at appropriate fora. For e.g. if you have been cheated in the market place or deprived of the right quality of service, your complaint should be heard and given due attention by the authorities. Consumers should also have a right to voice their opinion when rules and regulations pertaining to them are being formulated, like the recent amendments in the Consumer Protection Act. The right to be heard holds special significance in the Indian context because Indian consumers are largely unaware of their rights and passively accept their violation. Even when they have legal recourse, they prefer not to use it for fear of getting embroiled in legal complexities.
To allay consumer fears and to allow them to express their views and grievances, consumer forums have been in existence in India for a long time. Consumers have been approaching these forums and consumer NGOs regarding their problems and complaints.
Right to Redress
Competition is the by-product of the market economy. Everyday, manufacturers are discovering newer ways of cheating and duping consumers. Unscrupulous market practices are finding their way into consumer homes, violating consumer rights and jeopardising their safety. It is to protect consumer interests that consumers have been given the right to obtain redress. In India, we have a redress machinery called Consumer Courts constituted under the Consumer Protection Act (1986), functioning at national state and district levels. But it has not been made complete use of under due to lack of awareness of basic consumer rights among consumers themselves.
While in the developed world, right to redress is perhaps the most commonly exercised consumer right, in developing countries, consumers are still wary of getting involved in legal redress system. There are consumer courts in India where any consumer can lodge a case if s/he thinks he or she has been cheated. The details of how to lodge a complaint have been explained elsewhere in the manual.
Right to Consumer Education
Consumer education empowers consumers to exercise their consumer rights. It is perhaps the single most powerful tool that can take consumers from their present disadvantageous position to one of strength in the marketplace. Consumer education is dynamic, participatory and is mostly acquired by hands-on and practical experience. For instance, a woman who makes purchase decisions for the household and does the actual buying in the marketplace would be more educated about market conditions and ‘best buys' than a person who educates himself about the market with the help of newspapers or television. Also, today, it is not just the market or products that a consumer needs to educate himself about but s/he also needs to know about company profile, government policies and introduction of new technology.
Market influences have grown so much that not just wholesale and retail sellers but even medical practitioners are falling prey to their pressures. The pharmaceutical industry is one such example. India, with its 1 billion population and largely uneducated consumers, is a very lucrative market for this industry. The pharmaceutical industry, to boost its sales, offers free samples of medicines, freebies, and even free luxury holidays to physicians to influence them to use their brands and give them preference over other brand names. There have been many instances when drugs banned in countries like US, have been prescribed to Indian consumers and are readily available as over-the-counter drugs. It is a sad example of gross violation of consumer trust by medical practitioners. This situation is rampant not just in rural areas but also among educated urban consumers. The reason why the market, in connivance with physicians, is able to exploit consumers is that Indian consumers are not aware of the prevailing situation and do not keep themselves abreast with latest developments taking place around them. Consumer education can play a crucial role in protecting consumers against such dangers.In the Indian context, sustainability and traditional knowledge can play a vital role in empowering consumers but consumers are unable to connect to their knowledge base. Consumer education can rejoin the broken link and make traditional knowledge accessible to consumers again. Some sources of consumer education are past experiences of consumers, information dissemination by government agencies and NGOs, classroom teaching by teachers and informal lessons by parents.
While we all like to know about our rights and exercise them, we hardly ever accord the same importance and urgency to our consumer responsibilities. Consumer rights and responsibilities are intertwined together and without sharing consumer responsibility, consumers will find it very difficult to enjoy their rights on a long-term basis.
Consumers need to tread cautiously in the market place. While buying a product, ask yourself these questions :
- Do you really need this product?
- For how long would you like to use it? Will it last as long as you would like it to?
- What are the health fallout of that product? If it is a food product, does it give you any health benefits? Check the labelling of the product to see the nutritional chart of the product.
Consumer responsibility can play a very important role in not only checking the market but also in restricting unnecessary consumption. It is not the sole responsibility of the market or of the government to provide consumers with detailed information. A consumer, on his part, must make every effort to inform himself of the product or service. For example, if a consumer consumes a health product, he must make efforts to inform himself beforehand about its possible side-effects, and must also exercise caution regarding his eating habits, diet and physical exercise, to take full advantage of the product.
Consumer responsibility is based on ethics and rationale. There are no definitive set of consumer responsibilities and a consumer must exercise restraint in consumption to consume responsibly. For example, conservation of the environment cannot be forced upon consumers but a consumer must make a conscious effort to reduce consumption, choose environment-friendly alternatives and conserve energy.
Consumer responsibility needs to be shouldered by different consumer segments. Every segment has its own special consumer profile and consumption patterns. These patterns define the kind of consumer responsibility that a segment must discharge.
Responsibility towards safe waste disposal
Most often we consume without sparing any thought for what's going to be left behind as waste. More and more percentage of waste generated in urban areas today consists of non-biodegradable waste. Urban consumers are making use of plastic, paper and cardboard packaging, disposables batteries, plastic throw-away pens, use and throw nappies ,empty cans etc are becoming a common feature of an urban dustbin. India's urban population is around 300 million. By 2011, the total quantity of solid waste generated in urban areas is expected to cross 56 million tonnes, creating a waste management crisis for urban India. Consumers need to become accountable for their consumption patterns and their serious environmental and economic implications. The 4 Rs of consumption (Reduce, Recycle, Refuse and Reuse) are not just a consumer's prerogative but also his consumer responsibility.
Responsibility to endorse safer products· Ecolabelling
Eco-friendliness is an important criterion in judging a product's feasibility. It is a way of assessing how much damage a product has caused to the environment. ‘Eco-mark' is one way of knowing which products conform to environmental standards and are more envrionment-friendly than others. Ecolabelling is a methodology practised by many countries in the world, including India. The Indian government has formulated a scheme whereby some categories of products are awarded the ‘Ecomark' if they conform to certain standards set by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Unfortunately, in India, the scheme has not taken off due to consumer apathy and lack of response. The market has manipulated this situation to lobby with the government to make ecolabelling a voluntary scheme, which will allow manufacturers to disclose and cover information at will.
The consumer movement needs active participation of consumers to lobby with the government, pressure the market to deliver better quality, and to support consumer rights campaigns. Empowerment of consumers by NGOs and public campaigns is a two-way process and without continuing consumer support, no campaign can flourish.
Young Consumers and Consumer Responsibility
Children, teenagers and youth constitute a very important consumer segment for the market. Their consumption habits are unique and their purchase decisions are based on popular trends, brand image, use of new technology, flavour of food products, and style.The market also realises that young consumers have a propensity to consumer junk food and prefer them over traditional forms of food. This characteristic is exploited by the market by associating convenience and a brand image with junk food like colas, pizzas, and fast-food joints.
There are three major brands of toothpaste in India, viz. Colgate, Pepsodent and Close Up. All three of them compete with each other to capture maximum market share. In order to achieve this, they not only target children as consumers but also feature them in their advertisements to attract other young consumers. Colgate, for e.g., targets young children in the age group of 5 to 12 and offers free cartoon booklets along with toothpastes. Pepsodent vies for the same consumer segment and depicts some children relishing snacks, confectionery and sweets, while others are scolded by their mothers for having done the same thing. This advertisement makes children believe that consumers who use Pepsodent are immune to any tooth decay because of the superior quality of the product. This claim is unauthenticated and attempts to mislead children.
Close Up, on the other hand, does not perceive children as its target audience. Instead, it targets teenagers and the youth. It creates a brand image of confidence and popularity for young consumers between the age group of 16-30. Its advertisements constantly feature successful friendships and romances between Close-Up users.
Millions of rupees are spent on advertising a product which costs as little as Rs 30 and is considered ordinary by most consumers. From pushing toothpaste on neem sticks to advertising in the Kumbh mela, the market can go to any extent to boost its sales. After a point, the sales tend to stagnate. This negative development is offset by constantly repackaging the present product and introducing new products. For instance, Colgate has a number of brands in the market, like Colgate Total, Colgate Dental Cream, Cibaca, Colgate Gel and Colgate Herbal.
Junk Food and Young Consumers
Young consumers are special targets of the junk-food industry. The market knows that fast food is addictive and once young people get used to having their fat, salts and sugar rich food, they will become their consumers for life. Also, young consumers have the indirect purchasing power of their parents, which makes them a very lucrative consumer segment. Thus it does not come as a surprise that the market spends huge sums of money at advertising campaigns alone. Some of their marketing figures are as follows:
- $ 2 billion is roughly spent on advertising to young consumers every year.
- The children's direct influence in parental purchases was estimated to be around $ 188 billion dollars in 1997, up from $132 billion in 1990, $50 billion in 1984 and $20 billion in the mid-70s.
- The market for children aged 4 to 12 years alone rakes in some $ 30 billion annually.
- The junk food sector attaches images and perception of fun, enjoyment and prestige with their products and eating outlets. They also use popular film stars and sports personalities to strike an instant rapport with young consumers.
- Young consumers should consume in moderation and buy a product on the basis of its quality and merit and not because of the brand image. Students also need to see beyond the veil of advertising, brand pushing and market influences, to identify their real needs.
- The environmental impact of consumption must be considered before buying a product. A young consumer must consider what kind of waste is going to be left behind after s/he has consumed goods or services. For example, in school and college canteens, drinking cold-drinks in plastic cups, using disposable plates and mineral water bottles, has become very common and also a fashion statement. Students no longer bring home-cooked food or lunch boxes to schools. This has not only created a shift towards unhealthy food but also added to the waste management problem.
- Environment conservation and safe waste management is a prime consumer responsibility. We should be responsible for the garbage we create as a result of our consumption habits. Young consumers can actively contribute to safe disposal of waste by minimised generation of non-biodegradable waste and by participating and initiating activities like vermicomposting and segregation of waste.
- Paper is a very important consumable in every student's life. Everyday tonnes of paper is used in schools and colleges by students, teachers and office workers alike. Students can initiate a paper-recycling campaign and also learn how to make recycled paper themselves.
- Students must also acquaint themselves with energy consumption patterns like water usage and electricity consumption. They should sensitise themselves to the transportation sources they use in everyday life, recycling of second-hand books in the library and the air-pollution causing use of firecrackers during festivals like Diwali. In the state of Delhi, young consumer participation in anti-cracker programme is a perfect example of community participation and student initiative, when students shunned fire-crackers and were able to bring down pollution levels dramatically in the city during Diwali.
- Schools are learning grounds, not just for education but also for practical life skills. Students can be introduced to the concept of ‘polluters pay' by teaching them paper recycling, conservation of electricity, and recycling of water. Also, leadership qualities can be instilled in students by allowing them to monitor activities like garbage disposal, paper recycling, and rain water harvesting.
Women consumers not only constitute 50% of the total consumer population but also make 80% of all purchase decisions. They are being specifically targeted by the market because of their growing purchasing power and their ‘working-woman' status. Now, women have the dual role of family-makers and work professionals to play. As a result, they have less time, increased pressures and are slowly being de-linked from their traditional knowledge bank. The market takes advantage of this situation by offering to women instant services and products, like fast-food, ‘two-minute' snacks, and refrigerators and washing machines with supposedly better technologies.
Women consumers have the responsibility of choosing products that are not just convenient but also safe to use and eco-friendly. They must evaluate the nutrition content of food products before buying them and weight their quality with traditional foods that are less-expensive, have better nutritional scores and consume less resources like packaging and transportation.