Tackling consumer vulnerability: the role of civil society

In December 2012, Consumer Focus and NCVO organised an event to discuss how civil society organisations are involved in the market place and respond to the needs of consumers, particularly those in vulnerable positions.

The event brought together some great speakers, including:

  • Jane Vass (Head of Public Policy at Age UK) who talked about Age UK Enterprises’ experience of 30 years providing services to older people and addressing gaps in the market.
  • Mark Lyonette (Chief Executive of the Association of British Credit Unions) who highlighted how micro-saving can transform lives.
  • Phil Levermore (Managing Director of Ebico) who set up his organisation to tackle inequalities in energy pricing.
  • Ed Mayo (Secretary General of Co-operatives UK) who spoke of the power of the cooperative model.

We’ve written a short summary of what was said at the event: read NCVO / Consumer Focus Conference – Civil society and the market place (PDF 264KB).

Since the event, Consumer Focus has published Tackling consumer vulnerability – an action plan for empowerment, a report intended to inform the Government’s overall consumer empowerment strategy set out in Better Choices: Better Deals. The report provides a summary of the key findings of research carried by NCVO on civil society involvement in the marketplace:

  • “Many civil society organisations are involved in activities that relate to the marketplace for consumers in vulnerable positions, appealing to individuals as consumers but also as beneficiaries, supporters and activists.
  • One of the most striking findings is the diversity of involvement within the different sectors looked at and among the organisational examples identified.
  • Within each sector were examples of several involvement types, although some were more prominent than others. For instance, in the insurance sector, affinity partnerships were particularly popular, as were product accreditations and endorsements in the health equipment/mobility aids sector.
  • Individual organisations were, in most cases, involved in more than one type of involvement offering a mix of activities, and had more than one reason for being involved.
  • Many initiatives aimed to improve access and fairness – some did this by offering better value for money, others by ensuring that the needs of their beneficiaries are known and taken into account, and some combined both approaches.
  • Being involved in multiple ways and for multiple reasons can be challenging if organisations are pulled in different directions and if rationales for involvement compete.
  • An organisation’s values can provide an effective means of checking and challenging the appropriateness and effectiveness of the services and goods provided.”

And highlights a number of actions which would help to empower consumers in vulnerable positions, including some that concern civil society.

“Civil society organisations are already involved in the marketplace in a variety of ways. But there is the potential to develop that engagement to challenge and ‘disrupt’ the market to empower consumers in vulnerable positions. There is a need to follow up the initial Consumer Focus research with NCVO to:

  • look at the traditional role of providing advice, support and advocacy to see how it allows individuals to build confidence and empower individuals to be self-reliant
  • investigate how peer support could be developed empowers them in vulnerable positions
  • identify where there is a need for third-party intervention/advocacy to empower consumers in vulnerable positions
  • see how voluntary and community organisations and the rest of civil society can empower vulnerable people by involvement in the marketplace with affinity deals, accreditation and endorsement and the direct provision of goods and services
  • also see where civil society engagement may be used by companies to avoid providing services and goods in vulnerable positions

Further development of civil society engagement in the market has the potential to:

  • benefit consumers in vulnerable positions
  • raise funds
  • change the marketplace and the behaviour of companies.”

Veronique Jochum’s blog

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Véronique Jochum, head of research, blogs about the latest research from NCVO and other research related topics on civil society.

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