Navigating the Future: Empowering consumers in a changing landscape
Closing address to the 2023 Euroconsumers Forum in Rome
The 2023 Euroconsumers Forum has revolved around the power of words. In his closing address, which you can watch here, Director of Public Affairs, Marco Pierani, placed a spotlight on six core domains: Innovation, People and Sustainability concluding with the challenge of the Cost of Living and the Crisis of the Middle Class and the future for Europe. By merging our unwavering dedication to consumer protection with market innovation, he looks forward to the far-reaching benefits of Euroconsumers renewed commitment to serve a broader audience in the future.
Innovation: embracing a powerful force
Innovation is a double-edged sword, possessing the incredible power to propel both individuals and organizations to new heights, but it is also harboring the potential to become a destructive force if not harnessed effectively. It serves as the most potent tool in an organization’s arsenal for delivering significant benefits and enhancing consumer well-being.
In recent years, we’ve wholeheartedly committed to embracing innovation, even when its immediate impact has not been readily apparent. All the while, remaining dedicated to our longstanding tradition as a consumer organization to information, advocacy and holding companies to account.
However, as we will explore in greater detail in the rest of this piece, let’s recognize the dual role that consumer organizations should now have in order to continue serving their mission effectively. As well as welcoming the potential of innovation, they must also adapt their daily operations to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape driven by innovative forces.
People: our strength and cornerstone
Our strength is firmly rooted in our members, the people who form the cornerstone of our work. It is these people, our dedicated employees and valued members who are our foremost priority. We celebrate people as our core value, as shown by their prominence in our mission statement, ‘Empower people, improve the market.’
With over 1,000 employees and more than 1.5 million members in the five countries we serve, these people make substantial contributions to our economic sustainability. They collectively carry the torch, driving our organization’s mission to ensure a better marketplace and society, tirelessly working for the benefit of all consumers.
Individual interests and societal interests are distinct but connected. For many years, our primary focus has been dedicated to closing the information gap between individual consumers and market players, which has served as a bedrock of consumer protection.
We take great pride in our historical role in bridging this information gap through our journalism and product testing, empowering consumers to make informed choices that align with their unique interests. This has been instrumental in our organization’s growth, propelling us to a global leadership position.
As our current model reaches the pinnacle of its maturity and may be approaching the end of its lifecycle, we are determined to rejuvenate it with vigor and an enthusiastic embrace of innovation to keep on serving our mission.
Sustainability: a new altruistic approach to influence wider society
Our historical focus has predominantly revolved around serving individual interests. Over the years, members of our organizations—Test-Achats/Testaankoop in Belgium, Altroconsumo in Italy, OCU in Spain, DecoProteste in Portugal, and Proteste in Brazil—have benefited from our assistance in making the best consumer choices aligned with their individual goals and expectations.
In this regard, our testing framework, although characterized by a robust and sophisticated methodology, remained relatively simple, primarily centered on conducting in-depth analyses of two vital consumer aspects: prices and quality.
However, a notable shift is underway, particularly among the younger generation, where sustainability is gaining remarkable traction. Sustainability, encompassing environmental, social, and economic dimensions, is rapidly becoming a focal point for consumers.
This shift has prompted us to adapt our testing methods to accommodate this evolving societal perspective. This emerging altruistic approach represents a departure from the traditional emphasis on individual interests. It has the potential to drive a transformation within our consumer organizations, reshaping them into communities with heightened societal influence.
We are committed to taking this path, a path that necessitates change. We must alter not just our dialogue but also our approach to engage new generations. This adaptation signifies innovation; while we take pride in our past achievements, we also recognize the need to be adaptable and responsive to continue evolving and meeting the changing demands of the consumer landscape.
The call for change by the next generations is a call we acknowledge and are prepared to embrace. Undoubtedly, innovation poses challenges, making this transition a demanding phase for our organization. We are already heavily investing our efforts across all levels of our organization to ensure that we persist in fulfilling our mission—to serve the consumers and, indirectly, contribute to a better market.
Empower People, Improve the Market
Our goal is to empower not just our employees and members but all members of society, to foster a better marketplace and an enhanced society. The Manifesto we unveiled during the Euroconsumers Forum 2023, after months of in-depth discussions within our five national organizations and after securing endorsements from influential market players, like Google, Vodafone, Bayer, Ferrero and Eurospin, is not the final destination but the start of a new journey.
It transcends being mere ink on paper with signatures; it is a platform for nurturing the innovation I mentioned earlier. This path, in collaboration with market forces, will gather further endorsements from companies, institutions, and other stakeholders, acting as a catalyst for collaborations in the areas meticulously outlined in the manifesto itself.
Cost of Living: affordability is key to digital and green transitions
Within our Manifesto, we’ve articulated ten fundamental principles and delineated three primary focus areas. The first two, commonly referred to in Brussels as the ‘twin transitions’, revolve around the digital and green landscapes. The third domain represents a pragmatic addition, mirroring the current paramount concern shared by all consumers: the cost of living.
Inflation is biting hard in all the countries in which we operate, placing considerable strain on the feasibility of advancing the other two transitions. Effecting the necessary changes for the digital and green transitions will entail substantial costs, and there is ambiguity surrounding who will bear these financial burdens.
Failing to effectively address the third pillar, which hinges on ensuring affordability for a broad spectrum of consumers, will inevitably impede progress in the first and second transitions. We wholeheartedly acknowledge the gravity of these challenges and are committed to addressing them collaboratively with responsible market players and institutions. We advocate for a robust framework from these institutions to ensure consumer welfare in the future.
Crisis of the middle class
During the Euroconsumers Forum, we marked the 50th anniversary of Altroconsumo. While I hold partial indirect responsibility for 22 years of Altroconsumo’s journey, some of the participants at the Euroconsumers Rome Forum have been pivotal contributors since the organization’s inception. Their firsthand experience affirms that a robust middle class is a cornerstone for the flourishing of consumer organizations.
Presently, the middle class faces unprecedented pressure, a circumstance we directly encountered in Brazil when we embarked on operations there. Initial hopes of middle class expansion in Brazil were thwarted by economic and political complexities. Today, we witness a similar narrative unfolding in Europe. The diminishing middle class poses a significant threat to our ambitious agenda, including the digital and green sustainability transitions.
The vitality of consumer organizations is intimately linked to the strength of the middle class. Should it falter, the rights of consumers and citizens, along with our ambitious goals, hang in the balance. Therefore, our immediate concern is inflation, which compounds the daily challenges faced by consumers.
Europe: be stronger to flourish
Going back to key words, we have mentioned digital and green, we have spoken about affordability and the crisis of the middle class and before we spoke about innovation. I will now introduce a further key word: Europe. Europe is key for our organizations; it is embedded in our brand. Europe is indeed our home, even though our reach extends to Brazil.
As we approach an election year for Europe, we recognize the dreams of European citizens who have long aspired to enhance their lives collectively. While the European institutions have made progress, there is room for more substantial achievements. We advocate for a stronger, more responsive Europe that fulfills the vision inspired by its founders by finalizing their project and aids consumers and citizens in reaching their dreams.
The cost of living and affordability have become pressing concerns, not only for consumers but also for consumer organizations. During this Forum, we’ve heard insightful analyses from prominent speakers. Alec Ross illuminated the digital and AI challenges, while Paulo Portas shed light on geopolitics and its impact on our lives as citizens and consumers. In an unexpected twist, the media’s attention has shifted to two ongoing and significant wars.
We had grown accustomed to a prolonged period of peace in Europe, which allowed our flourishing. However, these newfound wars have tragically claimed lives in Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine. We believe that Europe must continue to be effective in guaranteeing peace, as without peace, consumer protection and consumer organizations are at risk of fading away. Peace is essential for the middle class to thrive.
Taking the lead at a pivotal crossroads
In closing, we are at a pivotal crossroads where innovation, consumer interests, and societal well-being converge, we cannot standstill, we need to lead the way ahead. Innovation remains our guiding light, with our employees and members as the driving force behind our journey. Our legacy has been rooted in closing information gaps and empowering individual consumers.
As we venture into the era of sustainability, we pledge to adapt and innovate. While the challenges ahead may seem daunting, our commitment to addressing them is unwavering. Inflation poses a severe threat to the middle class, a fundamental pillar of our mission. We must collectively confront this challenge, working in tandem with companies and institutions, to realize our vision of a better marketplace and society.