Consumer Advocates Crossing the Atlantic – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Over the past few days I’ve been participating in the annual Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, or TACD in Brussels. The organization is celebrating its 10 year anniversary, these days bringing together more than 80 consumer organizations, from both the American and European sides, to discuss issues jointly and press international officials on their responses to a range of consumer concerns. On the European side, 31 countries participated with the group “BEUC” acting as the European umbrella consumer organization.

TACD was launched by consumer advocates on both sides of the Atlantic as a way of balancing the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue. TACD has proved a valuable tool for advancing the consumer cause internationally. In Brussels, consumers had a day of meetings, consulted with one another about joint concerns, shared our respective legislative or administrative initiatives, and planned for our meetings with government officials. On the second day, we talked with these officials and shared questions and concerns. From the United States, we met with representatives from the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the FDA, and the FTC stationed in Brussels. On our last evening, we were invited to the American mission in Brussels for a reception and a meeting with the top American officer, the Charge d’Affaires Christopher Murray.

On our agenda were many current pressing consumer issues, including financial services, advertising to children, global warming, food safety, nanotechnology, product safety, and intellectual property concerns.

Sadly, when the American economy goes south, markets across the globe are brought down with it. With the world’s economy in a tailspin and unemployment rates up higher than they’ve been in decades, the condition of the banking systems in Europe and the United States has greater significance than it has in many decades.  Consumer advocates at TACD talked at length about efforts to learn from this economic crisis – a crisis that has reduced by 40 percent the value of retirement and college savings. We are keenly aware that our system collapsed under the weight of an array of risky financial products and faulty mortgages in the areas of the American banking system that are lacking in proper regulation. We all discussed strategies for putting better protections in place for consumers.

Another issue growing in importance to consumers is nanotechnology, the use of tiny particles now found many of the products consumers use daily – sunscreen lotions, lipstick, baby powders. We don’t really know what the effect of these nano products might be on our safety and health, and consumer advocates are concerned that our product safety agencies don’t have the expertise or resources to properly study these effects. So much work is needed here in the coming years.

During my decade-plus of working on consumer issues, learning about what other countries are doing on financial protections, product safety, or any other consumer issue is extremely valuable. It tells us that something we are asking for is possible, and regulation and consumer protections won’t bring down an entire industry, as our adversaries sometimes argue.

Among the comments I’ll remember from the conference, here are two of my favorites: Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, predicted that the next 10 years – with a new administration in Washington and a far more consumer friendly Congress – would be the “decade of the consumer.” Monique Goyens, the charming new head of BEUC, told TACD that consumer advocacy was far more than simply educating consumers and expecting them to know how to protect their interests. Complicated documents with many pages of fine print or hard to understand safety manuals are unacceptable. Goyens closed with this: “being a consumer shouldn’t be a full time job.”  I couldn’t agree more. TACD is a valuable tool for addressing risks consumers face in a global economy.