Consumer Bill of Rights

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Consumer Bill of Rights

What It Means

The Consumer Bill of Rights is a set of U.S. regulations that protect consumers from hazards in the products they purchase and from misleading information about products. These regulations also provide support for consumers in instances when a product fails, breaks, or is faulty.

When consumers purchase products that are defective or flawed, or when they have been misled by advertising, the Consumer Bill of Rights gives them a framework for taking action to correct the situation. For example, if a customer responds to advertising that indicates that a particular washing machine will operate using 10 gallons of water, and after purchasing it finds that it actually needs 20 gallons of water to operate, the Consumer Bill of Rights will support the customer when he complains to the store or seeks to return the washing machine for a refund.

Consumer-protection laws are important because they address a basic inequality between the legal power of consumers and businesses. In the event that a customer has a complaint, a business generally has more resources and power than the individual consumer does.

The original code of consumer laws was developed in the early 1960s. They have been expanded, but the four tenets established at that time—the right to be informed, the right to safety, the right to choose, and the right to be heard—remain the most widely recognized.

When Did It Begin

Today it is commonly understood that consumers have rights and are a powerful element in any economy. Consumers were not viewed this way until the twentieth century. By that time, countries that had industrialized rapidly (such as the United States and European nations) had built substantial populations of consumers. Businesses in these countries had grown very powerful, and when they treated consumers unfairly, there was often little that consumers could do about it.

In the 1950s consumers started to devise ways to protect themselves from harmful business practices. Advocates for consumers helped to pass laws that held manufacturers liable (legally responsible) when they put a product up for sale knowing that it had not been inspected for defects that could cause harm or injury. These laws are known as product liability laws, and they made manufacturers responsible for ensuring that their products were safe for consumers.

Product liability laws paved the way for a broader system of laws to protect consumers. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy presented the four basic rights of consumers in a speech to Congress. These consumer rights—to choose freely, to be heard, to be informed, and to be safe—formed the foundation of federal protection for U.S. consumers and became what is known as the Consumer Bill of Rights. In the years that followed, numerous laws were passed to expand support for the interests of consumers in issues concerning the advertising, financing, labeling, and packaging of products. The United Nations, an organization of countries that fosters international peace and cooperation, adopted and expanded the Consumer Bill of Rights in 1985.

More Detailed Information

Each of the consumer rights presupposes that people will exercise responsibility when purchasing products. For instance, consumers have the responsibility to use products for the purposes they are intended. They also have the responsibility to dispose of merchandise appropriately. Because of the Consumer Bill of Rights, people can expect businesses to offer a range of goods and services at prices that are competitive. It is the consumer’s responsibility, however, to choose products at affordable prices and to bring their concerns or complaints, when they have them, to business or government authorities.

The first right, the right to be informed, requires that businesses give consumers the information they need to make choices about products. The information a business provides about a product must always be truthful and complete. More than the other consumer rights, the right to be informed has been enhanced by many acts of legislation since it was first established.

In 1975, for instance, Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which required manufacturers and sellers of consumer products to give customers detailed information about what coverage a warranty provides. A warranty is a written guarantee specifying that, for a given period of time, the manufacturer will make repairs or replace defective parts for no charge. The passage of this law meant that businesses would compete for customers by improving their warranties; it also made it possible for customers to use warranty information in comparison shopping.

Consumers’ right to be informed was further supported by new laws that required money lenders to provide detailed information about the true costs of credit transactions. Several laws were also passed to set standards for product packaging, such as requiring accurate descriptions of contents and information about the potential dangers associated with a product. For example, the Cigarette Labeling Act (1965) forced cigarette manufacturers to put warning labels on their products’ packages.

A second consumer right, the right to safety, allows people to expect to be protected from products (other than automobiles) that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard. Examples of these products are toys, power tools, cribs, cigarette lighters, and chemicals used for household purposes. A federal agency called the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) supports consumer safety by setting the requirements for warning labels and product testing and also by establishing performance standards for products.

The right of consumers to know that they will have, within reason, a range of quality products available to them at competitive prices is protected by the right to choose. One of the ways the government upholds this right is by limiting the ownership of product concepts. It does this by putting time limits on patents (a patent is the governmentally granted right to be the exclusive manufacturer or seller of an invention).

The fourth point of the original Consumer Bill of Rights, the right to be heard, allows consumers to voice complaints and to be responded to by business and government authorities. State and federal attorney generals are required to help consumers when they have a complaint against a business that may have broken consumer-protection laws. At the federal level, the Office of Consumer Affairs publishes a consumer-resource handbook listing agencies that defend consumer rights. The Better Business Bureau is a lobbying and action group that supports consumers.

Recent Trends

In addition to the four basic rights developed from President Kennedy’s declaration, in 1985 the United Nations General Assembly endorsed four more consumer rights. These four tenets, when added to the original four, became the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection.

The right to redress or remedy gives consumers the opportunity to have a hearing or complain about a product so that the complaint is legally settled to their satisfaction. Settlement can include compensating consumers for the misrepresentation of product information or for unsatisfactory services or goods.

The right to environmental health protects consumers from harmful effects of pollution that may be caused by businesses.

The right to service gives consumers the right to be treated with respect and assures them that their needs and problems concerning products they purchase will be responded to appropriately. Service, in this case, also means access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, public utilities, water, and sanitation.

Finally, the right to consumer education encourages people to gain knowledge that will help them make informed decisions in the marketplace. This includes information about consumer rights and responsibilities, the benefits and costs of consumption, and the environmental impact of consumer behavior.