Empowering consumers in vulnerable positions: civil society and the market place

Veronique Jochum is Research Manager at NCVO where she focuses on participation, voluntary action and charitable giving.

jonathan_stearn_150pxThis is a guest blog from Jonathan Stearn, Director of Projects, Consumer Focus (Photo credit www.consumerfocus.org.uk)

When the Department for Business Innovation and Skills produced its strategy document “Better Choices Better Deals”, Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice were asked to consider how vulnerable consumers could be empowered. After carrying out a series of workshops and seminars, the first thing we did was to discuss ‘consumers in vulnerable positions’ rather than ‘vulnerable consumers’. And we defined consumers in vulnerable positions as:

‘People who cannot choose or access essential products and services which are suitable for their needs or cannot do so without disproportionate effort/cost/time’

Talking about consumers in vulnerable positions rather than vulnerable consumers is more than just twisting a few words around. It recognises that consumer vulnerability is linked to how markets operate.

This recognition that the market may not be equally benefiting all groups of consumers has been one of the drivers behind civil society and empowering consumers in vulnerable positions. Voluntary and community organisations, social enterprises, cooperatives and mutuals are trying to make the companies that create the markets more inclusive. Civil society organisations are acting as intermediaries to encourage companies to recognise how they exclude certain consumers. Some are directly providing goods and services to include and empower the consumers that are being ignored or getting a poor deal.

Take some examples. The RNIB is running a campaign to encourage the introduction of talking cash machines so blind and partially sighted people have choice and safer access to their money.

Insurance can help prevent those who are older, have epilepsy or are affected by cancer being in a vulnerable position when travelling. But it is often only thanks to charities like Age UK, Epilepsy Action and Macmillan Cancer Support that insurance is available.

Then of course there are credit unions working tirelessly to try to ensure that people are not financially excluded.

These and thousands of other actions by civil society organisations are based on an understanding of people who are in vulnerable positions.

But this engagement with the market is not getting the level of recognition or analysis that might be expected. Nor are some of the searching questions being answered.

Does linking up with charities influence the mindset and behaviour of companies? What about deals that compromise the policy of the charity? What happens when the trading arm of a charity strikes up a deal that is undercut by competitors in the market place. Is ‘alternative’ activity going to be scaled up? Is inclusive thinking ever going to become mainstream?

NCVO and Consumer Focus have teamed together and organised a conference on 6 December 2012 to ask some of those questions and seek some answers: book now for our event: Civil society and the market place.

Further information

Consumer Focus website

Veronique Jochum’s blog

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