Kolkata: March 15, 2023, marks the 40th year of World Consumer Rights Day, adopted by the United Nations in 1983. Although its genesis was a speech by John F Kennedy in 1962 wherein he famously advocated the urgent need for consumer interests to be suitably protected.
In the 1960s and indeed the 1980s, consumer rights were a relatively nascent concept, even on the liberated western shores. Manufacturers were not bound to declare dangers or deficiencies and as an outcome, the onus of failure lay entirely in the arms of the customer. A dodgy equilibrium which was corrected sharply over the decades, culminating in a reasonably equitable relationship.
A famous evangelist was US political activist Ralph Nader, who published a landmark book in 1965 - ‘ Unsafe at Any Speed - The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile’. It focussed on a damning hypothesis that car manufacturers were hostile to the introduction of safety features and did not spend the necessary money to improve safety. Chevrolet Corvair, by General Motors, was brutally singled out for its design defects and the company was compelled to withdraw it, unable to course correct.
Inspired by Nader, consumer protection movements sprung across categories, focusing chiefly on awareness building, fair compensation and creating a culture of integrity. In the tobacco industry, statutory warnings and the ensuing ‘Dark Market’ practices were actually co-created by customers and regulators - ‘ The Insider’ starring Russell Crowe is a faithful replica of Jeffrey Wigand who blew the lid on Brown and Williamson. Over the decades, multiple industries have been blessed with this blanket of customer entitlement, courtesy of many a motivated crusader.
A new-age dimension of consumer rights must include financial and ethical governance - from Enron to Worldcom to Bernie Madoff, we know very well how unsustainable organisations were brought into the line of direct fire. These actions don’t just impact shareholders, in truth they influence existing and potential employees as well as those engaging at a retail level. For instance, the latest Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya incidents can have multiple points of intervention for you and me - an urgent valuation of family jewellery and insistence on industry standards for the future as well as a purely principled call to disassociate oneself with the deeds of such entities.
In India, the Consumer Protection Act was formulated in 1986 and a later version, circa 2019, is also in present practice. There are self-regulators as well, including ASCII and adjacent bodies which ensure the diligent bridge between promise and delivery. Even more than product or service level transgressions, an even greater need for regulation arises at the communication platforms, with a growing tendency to mislead prospective buyers with incorrect claims and even the biggest companies are not immune.
But while all of the above is enjoying a suitable momentum, especially in the digital era, my focus is on a brand new wishlist for customer protection. Over the last sixty years, in most civilised economies, it can be amply said that customer protection is now an institutionalised agenda, within the regulatory or at least naming-and-shaming ambit. Global best practices travel rapidly and the proliferation of transnational corporations has helped standardise the optimal expectations. New-age e-commerce organisations have equally swiftly forged their protocols and any serious deviations are immediately censured, courtesy of digital vigilantes.
As a result of all of the above, customers themselves are now abusing the privileges of such rights and need to be controlled by the manufacturers and regulators. Or perhaps, it can be said that a brand new equilibrium needs to be generated between the rights and duties, of the consumer herself and not just the manufacturer. This will actually help everybody and even the manufacturer benefits, as the perils of unfettered consumption do not affect brand reputation.
A recent case in point is the death of Cyrus Mistry caused by the reckless speeding of the renowned doctor and every day we wake up to such news, especially in the context of luxury vehicles. Those who buy often disregard the safety rules of the land, considering the licence of affordability to extend to reckless abuse. Consumers as such must be halted in their tracks and World Consumer Rights Day is a great time to kick off - the instances are indeed many.
We are now familiar with the Air India peeing incident and the emergency door emergency onboard Indigo, and these are certainly cases of entitled consumers abusing the brand. Similar to the case of alcohol abuse, overeating junk food and spending way beyond means for luxury indulgences. The latest to join the fray is the recurring abuse of service providers and we hear daily tales of how the Swiggy Home Delivery guys are mistreated by buyers. An emerging candidate is the motivated infusion of fake reviews and how the reputations of restaurants and cafes are at the mercy of irresponsible influencers.
The next big thing in consumer rights must be to discipline and regulate the customer, now that the providers for the most part have been suitably covered. Provisions pertaining to such must be documented and mandated while brands must be given the reasonable licence to say no to dangerous usage or demands. This may also come at the cost of short-term business losses but will surely be beneficial in the long run, and I can share a few rebellious thoughts.
Drivers booked for overspeeding by the cops can be put on a No-Drive list ( like No-Fly) and thus banned from buying SUVs in the future - data integration can easily facilitate this. A similar ban can be extended in the F&B business and home delivery, while bars can surely become out of bounds for obnoxious fellows. Even laptops and other device makers must stipulate a new form of MRP ( Maximum Recommended Period), beyond which it is dangerous for eyes and brains. The trans fats industry can well do the same for potato chips, doing yeoman service for juvenile BMI and honestly, building a more lucrative lifetime value.
At the start of the 20th century, Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the luxury store that bears his name famously insisted that the customer is always right. In the first quarter of the 21st century, it must be said that the customer has many rights but is certainly not always right. The emerging era of consumer rights will be about a healthy equilibrium between providers and users and the pen must urgently meet paper to make this a reality.