In 1985, two pretty significant things happened for consumers around the world.
There was the controversial release of ‘new recipe’ Coke. And then, there was also the adoption of the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection.
Things didn't fare so well for the ‘New Coke’. After just three months, and a massive public backlash, including over 400,000 calls and letters, and noisy street protests, it was announced that ‘old Coke’ would be reinstated. America’s ABC News interrupted their regular programming to relay this victory for consumer power over one half of the world’s caffeinated soft-drink duopoly.
Fortunately, the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection have lasted much longer. They gained increased currency in 1999 with the inclusion of a section on sustainable consumption, and remain the most comprehensive statement of consumers’ needs, rights and interests globally.
To be honest, these guidelines are hardly the stuff to start water-cooler conversations. Like a lot of international documents, they are the product of agonising committee processes, built from layers of compromise and carefully chosen nuance. But is precisely because of this process, and the otherwise patchy state of consumer protection around the world, that the UN guidelines wield a power that goes beyond mere symbolism.
What Australians think of as ‘consumer rights’ are sometimes closer to ‘shoppers rights’. They are the laws of buying and selling, and in some cases, refinements to systems that work pretty well. In other parts of the world, consumer rights bear a closer resemblance to citizens’ rights. They go to the basic needs, and in some cases to people whose daily consumption takes place outside of cash economies.
You may be wondering what this has got to do with ‘New Coke’. Well, despite the diversity of global consumption, there are many consumer themes, issues, and for that matter, businesses, whose impacts transcend borders.
In Fiji, the same New Zealand-produced Fisher & Paykel appliances that sell with two-year warranties elsewhere are covered for only 12 months.
In Malaysia, local consumer groups facilitated comparative testing on cooking oils suspected to be recycled from used cooking oil from restaurants, repackaged and resold as ‘new’ oil to household consumers by palm oil producers.
In Latin America, consumer groups are waging the Toxicola campaign to have an additive removed from Coke following the judgment of a California court upholding claims that it presented a cancer risk.
The pattern here is local consumers confronting conduct from business that would be unacceptable in other countries where the very same products are sold, in some cases, by the very same businesses. Standing up against the might of multinationals, civil society needs all the help it can get. Pointing to guidelines agreed by the United Nations General Assembly can be a powerful tool in such battles.
Last month in New Delhi, consumer delegates from around the world came together to discuss the first update of the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection for the new millennium. There stands plenty of process, agonising committees and negotiation between here and the changed document that many hope will emerge in a year’s time.
But with the collective efforts of consumer groups around the world, including CHOICE, and the global peak group Consumers International, there is every hope that 2014 will be as auspicious a year for global consumers as 1985. It may also bring another new recipe for Coke.