Time for consumers to take some responsibility

The shoppers and the shopped.

For Adam Smith, the one characteristic that set humanity apart from the beasts was our ability to strike a bargain. “One dog”, he wrote, “does not change a bone with another”. The exchange of bones, grain, motor cars, iPhones and the rest has built up over the last 250 years into a system more complex than even Smith could have imagined. At its heart, however, capitalism remains a grand bargain; we as consumers make clear the force of our demand, and producers respond to that with the scale of their supply. The nuances of that extend to pricing, to service, to quality and to the behaviour of companies in society.

It may seem of late that one side of the capitalist bargain is no longer being upheld. Beyond the economic car-smash of the banking crisis –with causes so obscure as to be beyond the understanding of most consumers– in the last few months no newspaper has seemed complete without at least one headline of the "Big Company Does Bad Thing" variety. PPI mis-selling, large-scale tax avoidance and rumours of price fixing are only some of the most prominent. Indeed, the malaise goes deeper. In the UK, we suffer some of the highest costs of living in the developed world, combined with some genuinely poor standards of service.

Research shows that, in the UK, more of us care about service than we do about price – by a factor of something like 2:1. That’s good news for companies, as it means that competitive advantage needn’t mean a squeeze on the profit margin. On the other hand, it’s bad news for consumers, the majority of whom say that they are unhappy with, or indifferent to, the standard of service they receive. The UK media would appear to be on the consumer’s side, and are all too ready to hurl opprobrium, whether for illegal rate-fixing or long call-centre queues. The phrase “responsible capitalism” is used often, but not always in a responsible manner; it’s noticeable that the media punishment does not always fit the corporate crime. However, when even the President of the CBI calls for more responsible attitudes from business, as he did recently in the Guardian newspaper and also at this week’s CBI conference, then that can be taken as a sure sign that it’s time for change.

As consumers we have as much power as companies do to effect that change. After all, two parties to a transaction have equal rights, to progress or to withdraw as they see fit. While it may be harder for us, as consumers, to fully exercise our power I would suggest that not only do we have the right to do so, but that we have a responsibility. If our capitalism has become irresponsible, then we cannot lay the blame for that solely at the feet of producers; as consumers, we too must consider what we might do better.

The same research that shows a disparity between what consumers want from companies and what we actually get, also shows a disparity between our desire for change and our willingness to act to achieve it. In a nation where customer boycotts are rarer than hen’s teeth, it’s perhaps unsurprising that unethical business practice can go unpunished by the consumer; it may be that we simply don’t care about tax evasion as much as our media does. It’s much more surprising that, for a nation that values good service over almost everything else, we are unusually reluctant to speak out about bad service, or even to seek better. Compared to consumers in the US, for example, or Poland or Russia, we are less likely to complain, to ask for the manager, to get angry with staff, or even to shop around for a better deal. The higher standards of service enjoyed in these countries is a testament to the success of such tactics.

In the UK, we consumers need to decide on our priorities (though it seems that many of us have), and to act to make them a reality (which we do not, as a rule). We should not expect to have the best service or the best price handed to us on a plate; that simply isn’t how capitalism works. Whether at the market stall or in the call centre queue, if we suffer in silence it benefits no-one and changes nothing. Only by making our views known can we hope to build the positive customer experiences that we all expect.

Returning to Smith, it may be time for us in the UK to refocus ourselves on “the constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition… the principle from which opulence is originally derived”. As consumers in the UK, there’s an opportunity for us all to gain a little more “opulence”. If we could take our obligations as consumers as seriously as we take our rights, then we would all feel the benefit, and our companies would too.

Claire Richardson is a VP at customer relations consultants Verint.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.