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Changes in consumers, vulnerable groups, and ethical trends

European consumers also have evolved in the last decades and their behaviour and impact on markets has changed. On the one hand secular trends, dictated by demographics and long-term growth, are slowly but inexorably changing the composition and purchasing power of this side of the market. On the other hand, a clearer distinction between groups of consumers can be drawn, which vary considerably in their ability or preferences depending, amongst other things, on age, cultural background, and ethical awareness.

A 2010 OECD consumer study describes some of these changes, highlighting in particular that the percentage of the elderly population has increased and will continue to rise.[1] According to the study, this age group might have more difficulties in adjusting to fast-changing complex markets and technological development and in dealing with the digital environment. At the same time, the percentage of very young consumers (e.g. teenagers) has declined, but as a result of a general increase of income in industrial countries, this age band has become more active in the marketplace. They may, however, lack sufficient knowledge and experience to make well-reasoned decisions. Putting these two facts together one concludes that an increasing share of consumers may be relatively more vulnerable in their decision-making, and face barriers to effective participation in the market.[1]

Besides such long-term trends, shorter-term cyclical changes dictated by the economic conjuncture constantly influence the expectations and behaviour of consumers. For example, as a result of the economic and financial crises which began in 2008, consumer confidence has dropped and so has the income or purchasing power of part of the population, weakening the position of these consumers, and putting some at risk of social exclusion.[3] Other groups may equally be more disadvantaged in the current environment, such as disabled consumers, who may have more difficulties in accessing information or finding adequate goods or services.[4] The development of increasingly distinct consumer groups with different abilities and knowledge will require targeted policy answers to protect and ensure inclusion of vulnerable groups.

The demographic, economic, and social changes have induced an evolution in behaviour too. An increase in information and in financial means in the global marketplace has led to more ethical awareness, which is reflected in purchasing behaviour. By their choices, a growing number of consumers express social preferences, more or less consciously promoting ethical, ecological, and human rights objectives.[5] These ethical purchasing trends have sometimes been successful in raising public awareness and in pushing companies to adopt ethical standards; by so doing, they have induced a ‘moralization of the markets’[6] and contributed to the promotion of human rights.[7]

However, these movements are still relatively small and do not seem to possess sufficient organizational continuity to attain long-term effects.[8] Given that they express legitimate and pertinent concerns—in particular, considering the growing environmental challenges—the promotion of sustainable consumption can be regarded as an important policy objective. The European legal system is now faced with the challenge of adapting to, or at least addressing, these changes.

  • [1] OECD Document, ‘The Changing Consumer and Market Landscape’ (n 7), pp. 24-7.
  • [2] OECD Document, ‘The Changing Consumer and Market Landscape’ (n 7), pp. 24-7.
  • [3] See the Communication from the European Commission, A European Consumer Agenda—Boosting confidence and growth, COM(2012) 225 final, 22.5.2012.
  • [4] See the Communication from the European Commission, A European Consumer Agenda—Boosting confidence and growth (n 18).
  • [5] This consumer trend has been particularly discussed by social science and humanities scholars; see Micheletti and Follesdal, ‘Shopping for Human Rights’ (n 3), pp. 167-75; Stehr, Henning,& Weiler (eds), The Moralization of the Market (n 3), pp. 8-12; Gan (n 2), pp. 18 et seq.
  • [6] Stehr, Henning, & Weiler (n 3), pp. 8-12.
  • [7] See A. Fagan, 4 Buying Rights: Consuming Ethically and Human Rights’ , in J. Dine andA. Fagan (eds), Human Rights and Capitalism: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Globalisation(Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2006), p. 115; for a political science perspective on ethical consumption behaviours as a source of human rights mobilization, see L. Scruggs, S. Hertel,S.J. Best, & C. Jeffords, ‘Information, Choice and Political Consumption: Human Rights in theCheckout Lane’, (2011) 33 Hum. Rts. Quarterly, 1092-121.
  • [8] Stehr, Henning, & Weiler (n 3), pp. 8 et seq.
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