The umbrella term «consumer protection» is taken to include every aspect of how citizens should be protected by the state as consumers. But this initially harmless sounding term actually packs a bigger punch. Today, just about everything can be defined under «consumer protection» – not just health or product safety, as expected. For some time now, politicians have latched onto and pushed much broader, attention grabbing, «consumer interest» issues. In Switzerland, almost 60 regulatory changes a year take place in the name of consumers.
As Samuel Rutz shows in the new «avenir debatte» a lot of these legal amendments are, on closer examination, actually not in consumers’ interests. Often they can lead to mismatches between what’s provided and consumers’ actual needs; to higher costs in production and distribution; and to barriers to market entry. Among the examples in Switzerland are: farmers’ demands for greater protectionism on the claim of safeguarding consumers from substandard foreign food imports; specific Swiss labelling requirements that can raise retail prices by making importers print special labels (viz. the need for safety and warning instructions in all three Swiss official languages); or the requirement for regulatory approval for products that are already legally on sale in the European Union. Current consumer policy, moreover, is often patronising or smacking of molly coddling. Just take the latest demand for bread «monitoring», whereby salt content will be controlled, or the target, set by the highest levels of government, for less sugar in our breakfasts.
Things should really be going the other way, considering the technological leaps of the past few decades. Globalisaton and digitalisation have vastly improved consumers’ information around the world. The internet, in particular, has prompted «consumer empowerment» on an unimagined scale. Hardly a trip is booked nowadays without cross checking other travellers’ opinions online. Likewise web-based smartphone apps allow today‘s shoppers easy and simple tools to decypher the barcodes on products on supermarket shelves. The traditional assumption in consumer policy about the «ill-informed» consumer, who needs protection is turning increasingly into an anachronism. That’s all the more so with the growing number of «digital natives» among us.
In the final analysis, the best form of consumer protection is a functioning market and strong competition. So here too «less is more», and the state’s role should be limited to guaranteeing and strengthening consumer sovereignty. A reform of consumer policy instruments and processes that takes account of this aim requires, above all, clearly structured decision processes based on economic cost benefit criteria. Implementing such «regulation checks» on consumer policy should be the job of the BFK, while discharge of the results – for example in the form of recommendations to the Federal Council – should be left to the EKK. And to assure such a reform remains budget neutral, current subsidies to consumer protection agencies, running at SFr 1m a year, should be dropped.