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The Transformed Role of the Consumer

The position and the role of the European consumer have changed significantly in recent decades. Markets have expanded under the influence of globalization, which has led to a marked growth in goods and services. Furthermore, regulatory reforms, leading to liberalization of key consumer sectors, have enhanced competition and consumer choice. Finally, consumers themselves have also changed, for demographic, economic, and ethical reasons.

At the same time, new challenges have emerged, ranging from health risks, to threats to privacy, and difficulties in the enforcement of cross-border rights. This has led to a weakening of the consumer position in some respects, and thus stimulated a reflection on how such trends can be counterbalanced by legal initiatives. As we saw in the previous chapter, some of these initiatives have been linked to a fundamental rights discourse, resulting in a process of convergence between the previously distant areas of consumer and fundamental rights.[1]

However, it is now apparent that the connection between the consumer and fundamental rights not only stems from a need or desire of policy-makers to restore a balance of power; it emerges directly from new trends in the markets and in society. In an effort to reclaim their powers in global markets, specific groups of consumers are gradually becoming a more active part of the market. They do so by promoting or boycotting certain products on moral grounds, by establishing associations, and by taking a political stance, as for example in the movements for ethical purchasing and fair trade.[2] For these consumers, purchasing is not only regarded as a means to consumption, but also as a way of promoting moral values, ethical principles, or human rights.

The following sections illustrate these trends in a broad context, looking at some socio-legal, economic, and human rights theories which may help in considering consumer protection from different perspectives. The chapter will then close with an exploration of how a new EU consumer law approach may apply these theories to address some of the current challenges.

  • [1] See ch. 3 of this book. See also S. Deutch, ‘Are Consumer Rights Human Rights?’ (1994) 32(3)Osgoode HallL. J., pp. 540-53; S. Gan, ‘Essay: Consumer Rights: A Part of Human Rights’, (2008)1(1) J. Int’l Bus. Ethics, pp. 18 etseq.
  • [2] M. Micheletti and A. Follesdal, ‘Shopping for Human Rights’—Special Issue, (2007) 30(3) J. Consumer Policy, pp. 167-75; N. Stehr, C. Henning, & B. Weiler (eds), The of the Market (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2006), pp. 8 et seq.
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