Sixty years ago there were few laws to protect consumers against unsafe products or unfair practices. This was one of the reasons that led WA politician Ruby Hutchison to form the Australian Consumers' Association, now known as CHOICE.
Since then, we've been working towards making products safer by shining a light on dangerous items and fighting for better product safety laws. With the help of our supporters, we've had some amazing product safety wins over the years. Here are just five of them.
1. Trade Practices Act
One of our earliest success stories was lobbying for the introduction of the Trade Practices Act (1974). This was a huge win for consumers as its focus was to promote competition and fair trading, prohibit misleading conduct and provide consumer protection.
The Act also had huge implications for improving product safety in Australia, as it established mandatory product safety standards, bans, recalls of unsafe products and the issuing of product safety warning notices.
"The Trade Practices Act, 1974, may well be one of the most important pieces of legislation for consumers ever to be passed in Australia," we wrote in our April 1975 edition.
The Trade Practices Act, 1974, may well be one of the most important pieces of legislation for consumers ever to be passed in Australia
The Act has now been replaced by the Australian Consumer Law, which includes a national product safety law and enforcement system overseen by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and state and territory fair trading/consumer protection agencies.
2. Review into Product Safety Regulation
Over the years our testing of cot safety has led to a major review of product safety regulation.
In early 2005 we revealed that five out of the 10 cots we looked at failed mandatory safety standards, with a further two receiving only a marginal pass.
Following the publication of our results, the Productivity Commission embarked on a review of Australia's consumer product safety laws. The subsequent recommendations to improve product safety were later approved in July 2008.
CHOICE has continued to test cot safety, and while 68% failed to meet key safety requirements between 2012 and 2017, the latest cots to pass through our labs are safe – a sign that cot safety is improving at last.
3. Flammable nightwear labelling
In 1967 CHOICE tested the flammability of children's nightwear by placing nine nighties on a fireproof dummy, lighting each with a taper and recording the results.
"In 90 seconds the dummy was enveloped in flames… a couple of minutes later the dummy was stained black," we wrote in May, 1967.
CHOICE lobbied state and federal government about the issue. "How many more children have to be burnt to death before Governments will legislate to force manufacturers to label clothing, especially children's nightwear, as to whether or not it is inflammable?"
We celebrated a partial win in 1974 when it became compulsory for children's nightwear to be labelled with a flammability warning. But we found the labels confusing and knew more could be done to make these products safer.
Then, in 1977 – nine years after we first raised the issue – flammable children's clothing was banned in NSW and Victoria. Now, the mandatory safety standard for nightwear for children bans all highly flammable garments, and all other items must include a 'low fire hazard' or 'high fire hazard' warning label.
4. Thermomix investigation
A 2016 CHOICE investigation into the Thermomix TM31 (the model has since been replaced by the TM5 and TM6) revealed that a faulty sealing ring led to widespread scalding incidents. We also heard stories of Thermomix Australia using bullying tactics when customers complained, and that customers were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for a refund.
This led to the creation of our first ever mass incident report – with 87 Thermomix owners reporting a problem with their machine, 45 reporting being injured and of those, 17 required medical treatment.
if you sell a product that puts people in hospital, you cannot keep that secret and expect to get away with it
CHOICE passed the report on to the ACCC who then took action against the company, finding that the Australian-based sales team violated consumer law by failing to report dangerous defects. The company was later fined $4.6 million.
"This case shows that if you sell a product that puts people in hospital, you cannot keep that secret and expect to get away with it," said a CHOICE spokesperson.
5. Mandatory recall of Takata airbags
Our interest in product safety led to a 2017 investigation into the recall of potentially deadly Takata airbags. We found that voluntary recall efforts had stalled, with some manufacturers having only repaired one in nine affected cars. Many manufacturers also told CHOICE that some airbags were being replaced with a fresh version of the recalled airbags as a temporary fix.
Following our investigation, the federal government announced a mandatory recall of four million affected vehicles in April 2018 – the largest vehicle-related recall in Australian history.
CHOICE has continued to monitor the recall, and as of March this year there were still around 200,000 airbags scheduled to be replaced by December 2020.
"Our investigative work is crucial in holding businesses to account when it comes to product safety," says Amy Pereira, CHOICE product safety campaigner. "In the case of Takata airbags, CHOICE's findings provided a wake-up call to government that a mandatory recall was necessary to keep unsafe cars off the road."
Product safety still a key focus
We're proud that, with the help of our supporters, we've been able to shape the evolution of product safety in Australia for the better. But there's still more we can do.
CHOICE has long been concerned about the dangers of button batteries. Since 2013, two children have died and many more have been injured after swallowing button batteries. Yet we recently found 10 out of 17 household products that contain button batteries were unsafe, meaning children could easily access and potentially swallow the button batteries.
We recently found 10 out of 17 household products that contain button batteries were unsafe
Despite this, manufacturers are largely ignoring the voluntary button battery safety code. We don't think that's good enough. That's why we're calling for a General Safety Provision which would make it illegal for Australian businesses to sell unsafe products.
"At the moment, Australian homes are being used as test labs in determining whether a product is safe or not," says Pereira. "This has to stop. With a General Safety Provision in place, we will be able to trust that the products we buy won't cause us or our families harm."
For more information on our past and current campaigns, visit choice.com.au/campaigns.