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Risky products or consumer risk: informing the consumer Helio Mattar President, Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption

In the previous article, I commented that consumers need information about the environmental and social impacts of their consumption in order for them to make conscious consumption choices. There is another equally important point to which companies should pay attention: the communication of the risks involved in the purchase, use or disposal of their products. Many products, if consumed incorrectly or in exaggeration, may, for example, be health hazards. Some are well known and discussed in the media, as in the case of sugar or high fat-content foods. Less commented is the case of motor vehicles, since they cause indirect impacts on peoples health through pollution. The pollution mainly harms children and the elderly and aggravates heart and respiratory diseases in urban centres. Moreover, burning fuels used by vehicles is one of the main sources of carbon dioxide emission, the main greenhouse gas, that has lead to global warming and climate change. Such impacts on health and the environment are seldom considered by someone who is thinking of buying a car or driving it around the streets. And very little information is provided by the companies that produce and sell cars on such impacts, as shown in a recent study from the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Protection (IDEC). According to the study, none of the eleven factories in Brazil informs about the pollutant emissions, greenhouse gas emission and the energy efficiency of cars that they sell. In addition to being an ethical obligation, informing the risks and possible damages caused by the products will be a matter of survival for 21st-century companies. When giving transparent information about the risks derive from consumption of their products, companies will establish a competitive edge over their competitors and will be reducing future risks of negative claims and impact

on their reputation related to the individual and collective consequences of using their products. In times of transparency and visibility, there is no space for such last century attitudes as that of the tobacco industry, when the executives of tobacco firms publicly denied the information on health hazards associated with the use of their product, and encouraged marketing and advertising linking the product to sports, music, healthy life and modernity. The beginning of the end of this practice was signed in 1998 between seven tobacco firms and the American government, for payment of compensation estimated at US$ 206 billion as well as the end of the marketing and advertising practices, with the mandatory disclosure of information about the evils of smoking. Such financial loss, however, is small when compared to the size of the moral burden that this industry bears, even if it has changed its attitude and starts being more active in warning about the hazards of consuming their products. In the case of the cigarette, considering the chemical dependence caused by the product, the consumer risk is inherent to the product. However, in various other products such as food, beverages, cars, electric-electronic appliances, etc. the risks is not inherent to the product but the bad impacts will happen if consumers do not use the available information to guarantee as small an impact as possible to themselves and the collective, when choosing, using and disposing those products. In the case of cars, foods, drinks, electric-electronic appliances, only to mention a few examples, the availability of information on the characteristics of products helps in choosing the product, its use and disposal. The risks, therefore, are not intrinsic to the product, but depend on the choice, use and disposal of the product by consumers according to the information available on the consequent impacts.

Failure to communicate the risks of a product may have increasing costs for companies be it reputation or financial cost due to the impacts and possible a legal liabilities. It is possible that, from the available information, consumers reject or change their way of consuming some products. Instead of regarding this fact as a threat, the companies should perceive it as an advice on the direction to go: for example, developing products which provoke less harm to peoples health and to the environment, such as fruit juice with less sugar, or cars that use less fuel with less pollutants, or to change their advertising in such way as not to lead to over-consumption. Transparency is now a fact, not a choice. In this sense, giving transparency is to anticipate something that will inevitably occur. It is better to make transparency an ally than uselessly hope that the negative effects of the purchase, use or disposal of the goods or services will not occur when consumers develop their own consciousness on an uninformed basis. By taking the lead, disclosing what will be disclosed in any case, enables a gain in reputation instead of a loss due to failure to inform the risks to consumers in time. Without information, many goods are hazardous, and with information the risk is not intrinsic to the product but to its consumption process, since the consumer will be informed on how to act when buying, using and disposing the product for their own and for the collective good.