Consumer rights and responsibilities in the age of climate change and big data

I’ll be attending the Consumers 150 conference in Ottawa this week, which is co-organized by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Option consommateurs, Consumers Council of Canada and Union des consommateurs. The event is billed as a chance to analyze today’s high-profile consumer rights issues—national pharmacare, the sharing economy, climate change and air passenger protections—and, for advocates, to consider what happened to Canada’s once much more influential consumer movement.

The CCPA is not a consumer advocacy group, nor do we generally frame our policy recommendations as being pro-consumer. More often than not, we weigh policy options based on their overall positive impact on the public good, or how they contribute to social, environmental and economic justice. But that is not to say we don’t consider consumer benefits. We are big supporters of a national, socialized pharmacare program, for example, in part because it would considerably lower prescription drug costs.

But really we may be talking about a false distinction here, or at least a not very helpful one. All issues are, on some level, consumer issues in a consumerist society such as ours. The secret algorithms that big data companies use to relentlessly target ads (or racist propaganda) to people on social media (which is everyone); the unregulated use of toxic or environmentally harmful chemicals in brand-name clothing; the continued dumping of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into an overheating atmosphere… all these corporate crimes could be addressed (slowly, perhaps, if at all) by influencing consumer choices, or they could become potential catalysts for the mass uprising against capitalism that is always only on the horizon.

In reality, we’re running out of time for best-case options for addressing the biggest of these challenges. And whichever path you prefer, it’s going to require pulling together large numbers of people to make any impact at all—on corporate behaviour or government regulatory laxity. Part of day two of the Consumers 150 conference is devoted to thinking through how to do that. But before that, on Tuesday, I’m interested in an afternoon panel on climate change and its effects on consumers.

Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, will be speaking about how the government could be engaging Canadians more directly in the fight against climate change. “Our core message is that until business and government policy-makers and many in the NGO sector start thinking about working with consumers from the bottom up (instead of the top down) they are not going to move consumer behaviour much around GHG reduction,” he told me.

“They (the government) have to work to give consumers palatable choices. There is some evidence when they do that consumers respond,” he continued. “And energy efficiency incentive programs at the household level are broadly supported, when they lead to effective results and when they are managed in a way that doesn’t expose consumers to risk. However, we’re still not fully engaging consumers from their perspective, as they make decisions about their wants and needs in everyday life.”

This is not on the same scale as, say, the nationwide grassroots campaign that blocked TransCanada from building its Energy East pipeline (talk about a win for future generations, and future consumers). But it’s an area where our governments have quite a bit of choice to act, and the resources with which to do so, but where they may lack public trust to be effective, as Whitehurst put it.

“Consumer groups, which are understood by the public to care about consumer interests, currently have some of the public trust necessary to conduct fruitful public conversation with and provide information to consumers that could lead to GHG reduction. But they don’t otherwise have the economic capacity to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Whitehurst also raised the issue of fake news, which is rife in the world of consumer goods reviews—as much if not more so than in the “news” news we read on Facebook and Twitter, etc. He says traditional media is not filling the gap, or perhaps it can’t compete with the proliferation of online sources, including consumer-generated sources such as Yelp (for restaurants) or Amazon (for literally everything else).

“Consumers in Canada particularly need independent, consumer interest information to help them make sound decisions,” he said, again referring to choices that will help us fight climate change. “Consumers decisions that are not soundly made not only waste consumers economic resources, they don’t achieve GHG reduction goals.”

The revolution may be just around the corner. Until then, we will remain, in part, consumers, stuck making imperfect decisions to buy imperfectly regulated products based on imperfect information about their harms and climate impacts. I don’t know about you, but I would welcome a stronger consumer movement in Canada right about now.

The Consumers 150 conference runs Tuesday and Wednesday this week at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

Stuart Trew is the senior editor of the Monitor, the CCPA’s bimonthly magazine of new research, analysis and commentary.

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