Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through consumer protection

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through consumer protection
Photo credit: Fintrac Inc. | USAID

26 Feb 2018

New publication aims to provide policymakers and enforcers with a basis for reflection on the positive impacts that protecting consumers bears in promoting a more inclusive and sustainable development

Consumer protection is at the heart of UNCTAD’s contribution to the sustainable and inclusive development rights for all. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals require the participation of responsible and empowered consumers if they are to achieve their targets.

The only way to unleash the potential transformative power that consumers have in domestic and international trade is by ensuring a high level of consumer protection as well as to foster good business practices which seek the same goal.

Consumers can play an important role in a country’s economic growth and development. Consumer trust is crucial for the expansion of economic activities. Consumers should be empowered and encouraged to make informed, sustainable and healthy choices. They are increasingly aware of the environmental impact of their acquisitions and should be educated towards a more sustainable consumption behaviour.

The participation of consumers is, hence, paramount to ensure a more sustainable and inclusive development. Governments should consider improving their consumer protection laws and policies to better fulfil their commitments of Agenda 2030 and, in turn, consider the consumer protection dimension while devising and implementing their development strategies.

This publication aims to provide policymakers and enforcers with a basis for reflection on the positive impacts that protecting consumers bears in promoting a more inclusive and sustainable development. This approach will help them improve the consumer protection framework while also devising and implementing development strategies. Equally, it underscores the close link between Agenda 2030 and the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection.

As this publication shows, consumer protection can be a major contribution to meeting the SDGs. This is particularly true for developing countries and economies in transition where efforts to empower consumers can help leapfrog development stages. Sustainable consumption and health-care delivery are two of the consumer protection domains that are more closely related to development policies.

The role of consumer policy in meeting the sustainable development goals

Consumers’ trust is a crucial factor for economic growth and development. Therefore, consumer protection is a very important tool by which to promote these goals, aiming to empower consumers to stand up for their rights and to make informed and sustainable choices. It also enables law enforcement against rogue traders as well as providing channels for disputes, resolutions and redress.

Consumer protection allows consumers to play an active role in the marketplace which, in turn, will stimulate a more dynamic and competitive economy. Equally, this asserts the rights of consumers, either individually or collectively, and through nongovernmental organizations, leading towards a more inclusive and balanced society.

According to UNCTAD’s Manual on Consumer Protection, consumer protection addresses the intrinsic disparities found in the consumer-supplier relationship such as bargaining power, knowledge and other resources. Furthermore, nations throughout the world, having enacted laws that include newly drafted national constitutions, recognize these rights based on the need to provide consumer protection on a number of grounds. Example are economic efficiency, individual rights, distributive justice and the right to development while ensuring through State intervention that suppliers behave responsibly and that aggrieved consumers have access to remedies.

Of note, consumer protection measures contribute to equity and social justice by enhancing the bargaining equality between both the interests of the consumer and producer. The effects of this go a long way towards alleviating the problems of those who are particularly vulnerable in the marketplace such as children, the economically disadvantaged, and others who are illiterate and with specific needs, or disabilities.

As recognized by the General Assembly, the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection are “a valuable set of principles for setting out the main characteristics of effective consumer protection legislation, enforcement institutions and redress systems and for assisting interested Member States in formulating and enforcing domestic and regional laws, rules and regulations that are suitable to their own economic and social and environmental circumstances, as well as promoting international enforcement cooperation among Member States and encouraging the sharing of experiences in consumer protection.”

UNCTAD Manual on Consumer Protection

The UNCTAD Manual on Consumer Protection 2017 edition is the first comprehensive international reference in this field, aiming to support developing countries and economies in transition in their choice of policies and providing practical tools to assist policy makers in enhancing capacities while implementing the recently revised United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection.

UNCTAD, as the focal point for consumer protection issues within the United Nations system, is fully committed to promoting the guidelines and encouraging interested Member States to create awareness of the various ways in which they can promote consumer protection in the provision of public and private goods and services in collaboration with businesses and civil society.

This is all the more important since consumer protection is not homogenous around the world. Indeed, as the General Assembly noted “although significant progress has been achieved with respect to the protection of consumers at the normative level since the adoption of the guidelines in 1985, such progress has not been consistently translated into more effective and better-coordinated protection efforts in all countries and across all areas of commerce.”

With this manual, UNCTAD is contributing to spreading good practices and enhancing the capacities of developing countries and economies in transition to step up the protection of their consumers.

The twenty-first century consumer is a global consumer. Today’s consumers have the largest choice of goods and services, while the digital revolution has propelled them to the forefront of international trade. This also comes with greater risks, such as unsafe products, unfair business practices, inadequate dispute resolution and redress, breaches to consumer data privacy and lack of coordinated action among member States. More than ever, the welfare of any consumer is affected by the welfare of all consumers around the world, and we are witnessing the eve of global consumer protection.

Consumers need to be empowered for them to play their role as agents for change in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This can only happen when appropriate laws, policies and institutions are in place and all stakeholders, particularly businesses and consumer groups, participate in upholding consumer protection in the marketplace.