Countries are urged to step up efforts to safeguard consumers’ health, safety and economic interests amid the pandemic.
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As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumers’ lives intensifies, so does the need for international cooperation to protect them.
Consumers have faced a shortage of essential goods and services, hoarding, new forms of misleading advertisements and other deceptive commercial practices seeking undue advantages in these challenging times, all in a ubiquitous digital environment.
Consumers’ health, safety and economic interests are ever more at risk. Stakeholders focused on how best to safeguard them as the world marked this year’s World Consumers Rights Day on 15 March.
“The COVID pandemic has highlighted the need for more international cooperation to better protect consumers, especially for product safety and for online purchases,” said UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant during the European Consumer Summit 2021 held online to mark the day.
UNCTAD’s World Consumer Protection Map shows that 60% of the countries that provided data for it have no experience in cross-border cooperation. When it happens, it’s mainly among developed countries.
Recent UNCTAD research identifies some of the hurdles that stand in the way: lack of applicable laws and jurisdiction for consumer relations, lack of legal powers by consumer protection agencies and language barriers.
Also, there are too few regional frameworks that specifically address cross-border cooperation, especially for developing countries.
Digital, safe and sustainable
“The global nature of the pandemic translates into global risks to consumer welfare. Cross-border and international cooperation is the only way to ensure we keep an open global economy in which consumers are protected,” said Pedro Siza Vieira, Portugal’s minister of state for the economy and digital transition.
Three substantive issues are at the core of international cooperation in consumer protection today: e-commerce, product safety and sustainable consumption.
An UNCTAD survey of consumers in nine countries, conducted in October 2020, found that around 50% of them shopped online more after COVID-19 broke out, with a similar increase in their other digital activities.
Consumers can access products from foreign providers online and are therefore prone to cross-border unfair commercial practices. The safety of consumer products therefore has an international dimension.
UNCTAD member states recently adopted a recommendation urging countries “to raise awareness among consumers on the risks to their physical safety posed by unsafe products, especially when engaging in cross-border online transactions.”
In recent years, sustainable consumption, key to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, has grown in relevance in international discussions and consensus-building for policymaking.
Consumer protection is increasingly understood to be larger than protecting “shoppers’ rights” and considered to be critical to broader policymaking.
Time to step up action to protect consumers
“The common understanding now needs to be translated into decisive, stepped-up action to increase consumer protection, leaving no one behind,” said Teresa Moreira, UNCTAD's head of competition and consumer policies.
“International trade still allows known unsafe products to be distributed across borders,” she said. Also, consumers are still missing a common minimum standard for effective online dispute resolution irrespective of their place of residence, she added.
Besides, laws are not yet effectively enforced against cross-border unfair commercial practices, and unsustainable consumption patterns are still widespread.
But efforts to better protect consumers are growing from strength to strength.
The European Union (EU) has just launched a new consumer agenda that includes a focus on consumer protection in the global context.
“The commission is committed to international cooperation on consumer protection,” said Didier Reynders, the EU’s commissioner for justice and consumers. “And this includes engaging with the United Nations to agree on new international standards.”
International cooperation in consumer protection is only feasible when effective national laws, policies and institutions are in place.
“The African Continental Free Trade Area is an ideal platform to protect African consumers at the regional level,” said Hussein Hassan, acting director of the department of trade and industry at the African Union. “We are eager to engage with other international partners to enhance our capacities.”
Technical cooperation to developing countries must remain a priority for all actors with a stake in consumer protection.