Consumer protection turning green


In one of the recent editions of the Economics Report, we spoke about consumer protection here in the Czech Republic, its history and some of the main issues. However, consumer protection does not have only legal and economic dimensions: increasingly, it is becoming intertwined with environmental concerns. In the same way as sustainable development became an imperative for the globalising world, environmentalists and consumer protectionists are now talking about the need for "sustainable consumption".

While consumers are called on to change their spending patterns do they really have the motivation and a chance to do so on a market controlled by large multinational corporations? Can self-imposed industry-level ethics codes help? And can consumers effectively defend their interests on a national level? I spoke about these issues with Ondrej Velek, the coordinator of the non-governmental programme called Right to Know, and Karel Pavlik, the deputy chairman of the Czech Association for Consumer Protection, who both took part in a recent seminar on consumer protection held in the Upper House of Czech Parliament.

Ondrej Velek: "Over the past two or three years, we could see willingness to cooperate in the area of consumer protection between environmental NGO'and traditional consumer protection organisations. I see a mutually beneficial relationship between them - environmentally conscious consumption patterns and consumer protection. Let me give you an example: if the Czech Republic is wasting huge amounts of energy in inefficient buildings, in inefficient consumption, the question is, who is responsible for dealing with it. Is it environmental taxation or the system which wastes energy or is it our behaviour which is not motivated for savings? Simply said, the Czech Republic is not sustainable. Our footprint, our demand for environmental space is three times bigger than the area of the Czech Republic. We need to change our lifestyle, we should be sustainable - it does not mean any shock therapy, that it will be painful, but we feel that it is necessary to a good taxation reform, to start a discussion on sustainable mobility in the Czech Republic, to start discussion about green procurement. The government should be a messenger of changes and we should improve current programmes which are already running. We hope that this year, the government will set up the so-called National Council for Sustainable Development which is still missing and which is an obligation stemming from the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development, it is a commitment included in many documents but now, we have to change words to action."

Are you pushing producers to adopt ethics codes or environmental quality labelling?

"Self regulation in industry is a tricky issue in the Czech Republic. It was misused several times. I can mention the example of detergents, or washing powders. In 1993, a law was proposed but never came to force because it was blocked by large multinational corporations which opposed any regulation on phosphates in detergents. There was a long debate if the industry will regulate itself. They signed a so-called voluntary agreement with the Ministry of Environment, which was a proclamation of good will. It did not work efficiently though, and the goals were very soft and did not help lower the phosphates content. Now, because of EU accession, we have to apply much more stringent limits so that in 2005, elimination of phosphates in detergents will be obligatory. I am not against voluntary agreements, but they did not work very efficiently and the ethics of producers is sometimes lower. It is good and bad boys mixed in one bag and it is very difficult to accept the self-regulation concept at this stage of development of society and the business ethics. The time is not ripe for its wider application."

You have mentioned EU accession. The market is dominated by multinational corporations. Is it possible to fight such monopolies and dominant producers on a national level? Do you cooperate with similar organisations abroad?

Karel Pavlik: "It is always important to cooperate on European and international level. The Consumer Defence Association of the Czech Republic is a member of the European consumer organisation BOIC as well as the world-wide Consumers International. It helps us a lot to be able to share experience, because we do not have a very long tradition. We can learn much from them, but it also gives us the possibility to deal with multinational corporations more efficiently. For example, in Germany, a tobacco company put up advertisements but withdrew them because they were found unethical and in violation of the German law. But then we found out that the company uses the same advertisement here in the Czech Republic. This is the kind of problems that prove that international cooperation is absolutely necessary and essential for us."

Ondrej Velek: "In the area of environment, we established cooperation with European organisation which are lobbying in Brussels for European legislation. As you may know, there is a big discussion about the chemical policy of the European Union, to eliminate highly toxic or persistent or otherwise dangerous substances and to know more about so-called already used chemicals which are now in a shadow area. We have some allies within the industry and among market chains, because they are dependant on public opinion, on consumer demand. Let's say a producer wants to produce a dangerous product but the retailer wants to know what it contains - whether it can damage his own interests. It is a very sensitive area where consumer organisation could distinguish between different interests in the whole production circle and to have some allies and to have some alternatives: greener shops, more ethical producers. This benchmarking, this comparison between good and bad is a solution because we cannot avoid consumption, we do not want to avoid or reduce consumption, but we can moderate it. We can change it in such a way so that good producers, good businesses will be on our side and will be innovative and the bad should be reduced or eliminated.

This seminar is taking place in the parliament. Do you feel support from politicians, from MPs fro your initiatives?

"Yes, generally yes. Last week, there was a big discussion about the chemical act and I would say thanks to rational, open and frank lobbying for some positive changes, we succeeded to get in a provision stipulating the obligation to provide information to the public. So-called material safety data sheets will be public documents and will be more available to consumers. This is a success story of cooperation with some MPs. Today, we had a feeling that there are people who want to break down the barriers between politicians. The media create a little twisted picture of the parliament, depicting it as a bunch of irresponsible people who fight all the time. I have quite an opposite feeling. We discussed how we could be useful for politicians to balance industrial lobbying in parliament. And we held the seminar here to make us more visible both for media and politicians."