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Consumer Rights and Responsibilities

Consumerists, at times working alone and at times working within consumer organizations, have sought to define and then protect the rights of consumers in the United States. This consumerist mission progressed in fits and starts throughout the twentieth century. The goal of defining consumer rights gained some traction in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy delivered his Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest. In this historic message Kennedy identified four basic consumer rights, which soon were being called the Consumer Bill of Rights for Americans. These rights are shown in the following passage.[1]

Since the 1960s the topic of consumerism and consumer rights has spread to the global economy. Forward-looking consumerists, such as Esther Peterson, worked for universal consumer protection guidelines applicable to all peoples in the world. From 1983 to

PRIMARY DOCUMENT: President John F. Kennedy Proposes a Consumer Bill of Rights

Consumers, by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group in the economy, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Two-thirds of all spending in the economy is by consumers. But they are the only important group in the economy who are not effectively organized, whose views are often not heard.

Additional legislative and administrative action is required .. . if the Federal Government is to meet its responsibility to consumers in the exercise of their rights. These rights include:

(1) The right to safety—to be protected against the marketing of goods which are hazardous to health or life.

(2) The right to be informed—to be protected against fraudulent, deceitful, or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling, or other practices, and to be given the facts he needs to make an informed choice.

(3) The right to choose—to be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices; and in those industries in which competition is not workable and Government regulation is substituted, an assurance of satisfactory quality and service at fair prices.

(4) The right to be heard—to be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of government policy, and fair and expeditious treatment in its administrative tribunals.

Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest, John F. Kennedy

1993 Peterson represented the International Organization of Consumers Unions, now called Consumers International (CI), at the United Nations (UN). In 1985 the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection. The United Nations' consumer guidelines supported Kennedy's original statement of consumer rights and added four other rights to support people's basic needs, permit the creation of consumer organizations, eliminate abusive business practices, and expand international cooperation. In 1999 the United Nations added sustainable consumption to the list of consumer rights.[2]

With consumer rights come consumer responsibilities. First, consumers have a responsibility to make informed buying decisions. That is, consumers should comparison shop, distinguish wants from needs, consider personal budget constraints, obtain product information from a variety of sources, resist hard-sell techniques, and read and comprehend instructional manuals and warrantees. Consumers should keep sales receipts, warrantees, and other product information to help resolve disputes. Second, consumers should respectfully challenge business abuses by retailers and manufacturers. Abusive business practices include the use of deceptive advertising, the use of illegal sales techniques such as the bait and switch, the marketing of dangerous or defective products, and the failure to fulfill service contracts. Third, consumers should take steps to protect personal and financial information from identity thieves. Identity theft occurs when a person uses someone else's name, Social Security number, credit card number, or other piece of personal information without permission for fraud or other purposes.[3] Unfortunately, identity theft victimizes millions of people every year. The 2011 Identity Fraud Survey Report noted that from 2003 to 2010 an average of 9 million people had their identities stolen each year, at an average annual cost of about $55 billion.[4]

  • [1] John F. Kennedy, “Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest,” March 15, 1962, The Public Papers of President John F. Kennedy, 1962
  • [2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection, as expanded in 1999 (New York: United Nations, 2003), 1-11
  • [3] Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “Identity Crisis . . . What to Do If Your Identity is Stolen,” FTC Facts for Consumers: Focus on Credit (Washington, DC: FTC, August 2005), 1; FTC, Fighting Back against Identity Theft, May 2010
  • [4] Javelin Strategy & Research, “Identity Fraud Fell 28 Percent According to New Javelin Strategy & Research Report,” February 8, 2011
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