Fifty years ago today, John F. Kennedy gave a special message to Congress about protecting consumer interests: “The march of technology—affecting, for example, the foods we eat, the medicines we take, and the many appliances we use in our homes—has increased the difficulties of the consumer along with his opportunities.” He listed four basic principles, which he called the “Consumer Bill of Rights,” to safeguard against the risks of an increasing number and complexity of new products—the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard.
The speech was well ahead of its time. Delivered eight years before the US EPA was founded, it anticipated growing concerns about public health and producer responsibility. Yet, in a 5,000-word talk, JFK didn’t mention the environment at all. Three months later, The New Yorker began publishing a series of articles about the chemical industry’s harmful effects on the environment. Written by a relatively unknown government biologist, the essays were published that September in book form, as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The modern environmental movement was born.
Half a century later, Kennedy’s warning about the complexity of consumer products is more relevant than ever. On the anniversary of the speech, it’s appropriate to revisit the Consumer of Bill of Rights in light of five decades of environmental challenges and opportunities:
“The right to safety—to be protected against the marketing of goods which are hazardous to health or life.” Kennedy marveled that since World War II, the number of goods in a typical grocery store had quadrupled, from 1,500 to over 6,000. Today some 30,000 new products enter the market every year, and their exact contents and environmental and human health effects are generally unknown. While consumer interest in “green” products reportedly doubled from 2008 to 2010, a third of consumers say that the “low availability” of such products is why they don’t buy more of them. The demand for green products is growing, but manufacturers may not be keeping pace, in part because of limited access to better materials and information.
“The right to be informed—to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading information…and to be given the facts he needs to make an informed choice.” According to the environmental marketing firm Terrachoice, over 95 percent of products claiming to be “green” are committing at least one of what it calls the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing.” Increased transparency about a product’s contents and production is essential. Last year, Perkins+Will and Construction Specialties introduced a labeling system for building materials and products that aids the disclosure of environmental and human health data—a good model for other industries, as well.
“The right to choose—to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices.” A 2011 study by Grail Research shows that price is by far the biggest deterrent to purchasing “green” products, with 74 percent of “non-green” consumers calling them “too expensive.” The same study also reveals a perceived lack of diversity in the market options: an abundance of products are marketed as recyclable, for example, while “non-toxic” products are scarce. These perceptions present a tremendous opportunity for producers to capture more market share by offering a greater variety of safer, healthier, more affordable products.
“The right to be heard—to be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of Government policy….” Kennedy pointed out that while consumers represent the largest group in the economy, they are “the only important group…whose views are often not heard.” In the past, government has had to take the lead in protecting consumers—through, for example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Today, however, the market demand may be changing how business responds to consumer needs. The World Economic Forum’s 2012 report lists the primary strategy for scaling up sustainability as “transform[ing] demand through interactions with the consumer.” Social media, for example, gives business real-time feedback: as of this week, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is followed by nearly 57,000 people on Facebook, and more than 1,500 companies have pledged to meet its goals to eliminate harmful chemicals from personal care products. By listening to its customers, business can stimulate both economic demand and sustainable change.