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Global guidelines to unlocking Online Product Safety for Consumers

The risk of consumers being exposed to unsafe products on online marketplaces has elevated. Our guest, Consumers International, explains its guidelines for online product safety.

This is a guest post by Consumers International. All views expressed are its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

This year, global e-commerce sales are expected to reach $4.2 trillion. Internationally 1.48 billion people shopped online in 2019, with online shoppers totalling 53% of the population of high-income countries, 16% in upper middle income, 5% in lower middle income and 2% in low-income countries.

Whilst consumers’ reliance on digital markets continues to grow – a trend exacerbated by the global Covid-19 pandemic – it has also elevated the risks of consumers being exposed to unsafe products sold by online marketplaces. Regulation and enforcement are falling behind in addressing these potential harms for consumers.

To address this gap, the Guidelines for Online Product Safety were developed by Consumers International, in collaboration with its 200 consumer advocacy members, in over 100 countries. The Guidelines presents global recommendations for actions from governments and businesses to ensure the rights and needs of consumers are built into the design of digital markets regulations and practices.

A global and collaborative approach

recent survey of Consumers International members across 89 countries in 2019 indicated that:

🔹 In 40% of countries there is no product safety agreement between national authorities and online marketplaces.

🔹 Less than 10% of countries have statutory or voluntary agreements to ensure online platforms will remove unsafe products if notified. Figures are relatively higher for high income countries.

🔹 Only 12% of online platforms have provided a dedicated contact point for authorities to report unsafe products. Only 8% have standardised forms for sharing information about unsafe products.

What’s the impact?

🔹 Consumers suffer real harm. Preventable detriment suffered by consumers and society due to product-related accidents can be significant. For example, inflammable chargers, illegal levels of chemicals found in children’s toys, and more.

🔹 Businesses lose consumer trust. Responsible online retailers and platforms are put at risk by the poor product safety practices of their competitors. For example, they lose out when undercut by unsafe counterfeit products, and are also impacted by a loss of trust in the marketplace.

🔹 We harm the planet. The resources to produce unsafe products are ultimately wasted, as they are not fit for purpose and need to be replaced.

This calls for global, harmonised, and collaborative actions from decision-makers to unlock online product safety for consumers everywhere. For consumers, this means their right to safety is recognised to establish trust and confidence in online marketplaces.

Information and education are essential for consumers to understand how to approach situations when faced with unsafe products bought online. However, online marketplaces have the responsibility and liability to ensure redress and transparency to protect consumers from harm. Governments also play a role in enforcing these responsibilities to ensure higher product safety standards.

Consumers International and its members are committed to achieving consistent and effective policy and enforcement by government and international agencies, along with buy-in from businesses and consumers.

This was a guest post by Consumers International. All views expressed were its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Comments

What I didn’t see here ( but I may have missed it) was a requirement for those, like Amazon, who host online marketplaces being subject to legal and fiscal penalties simply for allowing an unsafe, harmful, dangerous product, that is not in compliance with national regulation, to be sold. That should make them far more careful about the products they promote.

Before applying penalties to online marketplaces, what will be done to identify dangerous and counterfeit products? We cannot wait until people have been injured or their houses set on fire.

@gmartin – George – Will anyone from Consumers International or Which? be available to provide more information or answer questions, please.

Dangerous products can be dealt with in the same way that our UK retailers and other responsible businesses do. They are all liable for ensuring the compliance of the products they choose to sell to us and are liable if they do not fulfil this responsibility.

This approach worked in the days when there were relatively few products imported from abroad and each company in the supply chain could usually be trusted to comply with the rules. Now, this is obviously not happening. Some of the online retailers are very small, sometimes a single person that has managed to purchase surplus stock.

If online marketplaces are made legally responsible for ensuring that all goods offered by their traders are safe and enforcement is in place we might make progress. There are various possibilities of how to tackle the problem.

Irresponsible traders are able to cut costs by not complying with the requirements that responsible companies do follow, and many people buy on price. This has contributed to the failure of responsible businesses.

The vast number of products sold by respectable UK suppliers are generally safe, and always have been because regulations governing them are observed by due diligence.

Online traders currently escape this regulation and that, quite simply, needs putting right.

I have said, and clearly we agree, that the hosts of online marketplaces ar made legally responsible. Let us hope progress is made to achieve that.

It has long surprised me that Poundland rarely features in recalls. I remember making visits to study electrical goods expecting to find products that were obviously non-compliant but could not find any examples. If Poundland, which sells cheap goods with low profit margins, can manage to avoid selling unsafe electrical goods then perhaps online retailers could do the same. Poundland is a large retailer whereas some of the marketplace traders found online are small.

I hope that we get to know more detail about what is planned to tackle the problem of dangerous goods sold online.

Poundland is subject, like other UK retailers, to UK legislation and can be prosecuted if they sell products that do not comply with UK regulations. Overseas suppliers are not subject to such legislation. It is the marketer in the UK. The loophole is that a UK retailer, like Amazon, even when they “facilitate” the sales of their products through their marketplace and benefit financially, cannot currently be held to account for what they help reach UK consumers.

Price does not necessarily determine the suitability of a product. They simply need to be shown to comply with relevant UK regulations. When we have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, for example, that simply do not work then “something must be done” to restrain marketplaces.

I am well aware of that.

I do not understand why government action was not taken many years ago, nor do I understand why successive governments have run down Trading Standards to an extent that citizens of this country cannot rely on action being taken if they have a valid grievance against a company.

This may help understand the current situation. https://www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk/media/hnilnac4/online-marketplaces-the-need-for-change.pdf
Until recently, of course, we were part of the EU and subject to a collective stance on such issues. Maybe now we have left we can progress this more rapidly? Time will tell.

It’s an interesting document and provides a useful overview of the current situation. I’m particularly interested by the information about Primary Authorities and the suggestion that traditional management of product safety is inappropriate for online marketplaces.

I cannot understand how being independent of the EU will help us tackle the problems with online marketplaces when it’s usually best to work together with other countries to tackle problems. We are already told that we have fallen behind in respect of the Product Safety Pledge. It’s comforting to read the prominent statement: “TRADING STANDARDS DEPARTMENTS NEED TO BE APPROPRIATELY RESOURCED TO TAKE ACTION AGAINST ONLINE MARKETPLACES. We and others have been saying this for years, Malcolm, and not just in the context of these marketplaces. If the marketplaces were required to provide funding to progress this we might get somewhere.

However, research by the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) has found that 62.5% of electrical goods advertised on online marketplaces were non-compliant, with 23% being unsafe i. Research by Electrical Safety First also found that 14 out of 15 sampled electrical goods on online marketplaces were unsafe. Consumers are increasingly being exposed to unregulated online marketplaces – and this situation needs to be addressed.

I would like to see a detailed report to better understand the situation.

It requires legislation to allow Trading Standards to take action to penalise marketplace operators. This was not forthcoming in the EU, (as yet). As we are promoting a UK online harms bill we might be quicker at introducing a marketplace product safety bill that places responsibility on the operator. Who knows.

Yes, I have been among those asking for Trading Standards to be properly resourced and funded, with a national organisation dealing with nationwide issues (like Whirlpool and Currys) and local TS dealing with your local businesses. I would like to see Which? get behind this.

At present it is National Trading Standards that deals with large companies like Currys through Primary Authority agreements but if we have a complaint we must contact our local TS office. That’s appropriate if, for example, a branch was contravening trading rules but expecting everyone who was let down by Whirlpool to deal with their local TS regarding a national problem is just another example of why consumer protection needs to be brought up to date.

I wish that Which? would put effort into this rather than producing articles on Black Friday, other than to alert us to the common marketing practice of raising prices.

Wavechange, you say ”At present it is National Trading Standards that deals with large companies like Currys through Primary Authority agreements…….”. I am not sure that is the case: I believe a specific local authority Trading Standards office will deal with a particular business. That is why the Whirlpool/Indesit washing machine and tumble dryer problems were handled by Peterborough Trading Standards, not National Trading Standards.

Primary Authority is a means for businesses to receive assured and tailored advice on meeting environmental health, trading standards or fire safety regulations through a single point of contact. … Primary Authority is based on legal partnerships between businesses and individual local authorities.

I am fairly sure it is Hertfordhsire CC’s Trading Standards Service that is the designated Primary Authority for Currys.

The department explains its role as follows –

“A named contact in our Trading Standards team will give you tailored and assured advice, which applies wherever your business operates and can’t be challenged by other regulators.

“If required, we can also provide:
:: an inspection plan, instructing other regulators on how to inspect your premises
:: auditing and sampling of your business
:: tailored staff training
:: detailed analysis of your policies and procedures
:: review of your print and online marketing before publication
:: assured advice on fire safety from our Fire and Rescue service
:: contacts for environmental health compliance advice.

“Costs will be agreed based of the level of advice and amount of time required.”

I don’t know the exact relationship between these organisation but National Trading Standards is involved with consumer issues even though it will not deal with the public: “We allocate Government funding to tackle high priority national and regional Trading Standards issues in England and Wales.” That means that currently the consumer has no direct way of reporting issues that are national rather than local. For example, if I had a problem with information about information on a company website and the company refused to take action, I could only take this to my local TS office. As I explained in another Conversation, I have been unable to get TS to take action on obviously dangerous products being sold on the Amazon Marketplace because I had not bought them.

I understand the purpose of Primary Authority agreements but these are between selected local authority TS offices and individual businesses. It can be a challenge to even find out about which TS office has an agreement with a company, as the information is intended for business: https://primary-authority.beis.gov.uk Peterborough TS will respond to organisations such Which? but is likely to decline to communicate with consumers unless they are our local TS office.

With the growing importance of online trading our legislation is long overdue for overhaul to make it fit for purpose. Hopefully we may in future be able to feed information to a national coordinating body if we ae aware of a national problem. Dealing with a local TS is fine for handling problems such as local tradespeople breaking the law, for example.

I believe we are agreed that we need a national organisation that consumers can approach directly to report national issues rather than having to deal with our local TS office.

I have no reason to doubt that a good local trading standards service would refer on to the relevant primary authority any substantial complaint against a large company with multiple outlets or widespread distribution, and such good services do exist. I believe the real obstacle is the gatekeeper role of Citizen’s Advice which means we cannot directly contact our local TS service. I have had sensible correspondence with the Norfolk TS service on setting up a no-cold-calling zone, however, and dealt with something else through a county councillor.

The reason why we are asked to contact CA is because they can route enquiries to the appropriate organisations and the vast majority of citizens have little understanding about consumer protection. This has been confirmed to me by a family member who has worked in CA for years, but recently retired from the job. It has also been explained by others posting on this website. My experience is that CA has recorded details of my reason for making contact and passed them on to Trading Standards. In the past I have had TS take action on my behalf, but more recently they have declined to do so.

I agree that local Trading Standards should be the first port of call for any complaint. I see no point in having an intermediary, like Citizens Advice. It has been said that they act like a triage, but at least there your issue is evaluated and you are passed through to the next level; CA do not appear to do that, nor keep track of the progress of any complaint.

NTS say : Contacts
For Consumer Advice

If you have a complaint about goods or services, please contact Citizens Advice for information and advice:

VISIT THE CITIZENS ADVICE WEBSITE

You can call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 0808 223 1133 and may speak to a Welsh-speaking adviser on 0808 223 1144.

Please note: National Trading Standards cannot help members of the public with specific complaints or advice about goods, services or specific businesses.
To find your local trading standards office

If you would like to contact your local authority trading standards service, please enter your postcode on the “Find my Council” page of the .gov web site to find a Trading Standards office near you.

Very often you local authority TS site will tell you to contact……..Citizens’ Advice.

Malcolm – I distinctly remember you suggesting that we should be able to deal with a national body over national issues rather than our local TS office.

The local CA services I have dealt with have passed me on to TS except when I wanted to make a complaint about obviously dangerous goods that I found being advertised on the Amazon website by a Marketplace trader. Here they contacted TS and passed on the reply that no action would be taken if I had not purchased the goods.

Kevin says:
2 December 2021

My local trading standards dept have this on their authority website:
“we are responsible for ensuring that sales are carried out within the law”

But there is no phone number, email address, or web form to communicate with them, simply the following statement:
“If you are a member of the public… …Check out the Advice Guide on the Citizens Advice Bureau website, or call their helpline on 03454 040506”

However they DO have a contact hidden under a “Scams” subsection:
“If you think you, a friend or relative are being targeted by scams either by letter, phone call, computer or text messages, let us know immediately, email tradingstandards@xxx.gov.uk

This seems illogical to me, the “scams” described are self-evidently national in scope and more of a police matter, while buying a product with a misleading description is, initially at least, a local matter. Having tried to complain about a seriously misleading description on an own brand product from a large supermarket, I gave up after being given the runaround by CA, local TS and the supermarket, the product is still on sale with the wilfully misleading description. No wonder people turn to Facebook/Twitter etc.

I have said that national body should deal with national issues; Whirlpool and Currys for example, but I am quite happy to route a complaint through a Local TS, or direct. I think leaving Peterborough TS to decide what Whirlpool should do in a huge dryer probkem was the wrong thing to do.

My concern is to move these kind of issues forwards by considering all views and available information in the hope that Which? will take a considered cause further.

Doing my best to get someone to be available – bear with me.

UPDATED 11/06/2021

Welcome to The new International Consumer Centre (UKICC), a service that delivers free support and advice for UK consumers who have made purchases from European countries outside the UK, as well as an increasing number of non-European countries, which replaces the old UKECC-NET operational pre-Brexit.

Contact: UK International Consumer Centre. http://www.ukecc.net – 01268 886690. Mon-Fri between 10am-4pm.

I haven’t researched its prime purpose or intention at a national level, but it would seem untypical to provide such a service for one without the other. It purports to operate under the same principle as UKECC to help consumers deal with disputes arising from purchases of goods and services from traders in the EU, Iceland or Norway, plus an increasing number of non European countries.

Malcolm – From memory you did try to contact Peterborough TS rather than your local TS when trying to investigate the Whirlpool issue and they declined to respond. I also had a refusal of help from National TS and was told to contact my local TS. It seems difficult to get information unless Which? helps us or invites input, as in the present Conversation.

Years ago I found the local TS office helpful but not recently. In these days of ‘free’ phone calls and email I would be happier to deal with a national organisation that is familiar with national problems, leaving the local TS office to deal with rogue local businesses, etc.

Beryl – Although I try to avoid buying from companies without a UK office I expect that this will become a necessity sooner or later. Thanks for the link.

I understand the reason why we are asked to contact CA in the first instance, but that is merely a consequence of the 2010-15 coalition government’s decision to de-scope local authority trading standards services and reduce their funding in the mistaken belief that the Consumer Rights Act 2015 would provide consumers with all the support they would need.

It is perfectly possible for a professional trading standards service to “route enquiries to the appropriate organisations”; I remember in the 1960’s & -70’s when our London local authority ran an excellent overall weights & measures/trading standards service and also had a town centre consumer protection ‘shop’ on the main shopping street which served as a drop in-centre for questions and complaints, an information and advice centre, a place where news and campaigns were publicised, and a venue for workshops and sessions on consumer affairs. We have gone backwards ever since. With modern internet and communication resources the service could have developed even further.

I agree with that, the new UKICC should include all UK businesses, unless it is assumed UK businesses are beyond reproach. A right wing misrepresentation at its worst.

That’s a long time ago, John. It’s widely agreed that funding for Trading Standards has been run down to save money.

After one of our discussions about Citizens Advice and Trading Standards I asked a fair number of people about what they thought was the role of TS. A couple of them identified the role of weights and measures but otherwise did not have a clue. CA staff are trained to cope with a wide range of enquiries and might, for example, have to decide what was best to do with an enquiry about a housing issue that could be relevant to TS but inability to pay the rent and threats from the landlord might be the first priority. If you turn up at an A&E department after an accident, triage may establish the the top priority is not to deal with the painful leg but to look for head injury. If funding for TS is restricted I want this to be used wisely and not spent on interviewing people who they cannot help. We save money and leave this job to CA volunteers. A great deal of work that should be funded by the government has to be dealt with by charities.

It would be interesting to know how much the government pays Citizens Advice in grant to support its consumer protection work.

It’s hardly surprising that people today don’t know much about trading standards – it’s been kept under a blanket for over a decade and no longer has a public face.

I do not dismiss the important para-legal work carried out by CA but specialised consumer advice centres are likely to be better staffed, focussed and informed than multi-functional volunteer-run bureaux. Our county TS service outreaches to the whole community with news feeds, recall reports, scam alerts, rogue trader warnings, and so on. Unless I am mistaken I don’t think CA puts the experience it gains from dealing with individual clients into a wider domain. According to a response to a previous comment it doesn’t seem to collaborate with the Consumers’ Association [Which?] either.

The government funding is summarised in this report: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/Global/CitizensAdvice/Governance/Annual%20Report-2019-20.pdf

I cannot recall contacting CA other than to be referred to TS but I have learned a bit about their work from speaking to people involved, mainly one of my relations.

Thanks, Wavechange.

Overall, it’s a good report and a model of clarity. It shows that the charity receives £16m from the government for its consumer work and that roughly 20% of it’s contact calls are in relation to consumer issues. On the face of it, and at a tactical level, the public are clearly getting very good value from the government’s outsourcing of consumer support to CA instead of local authority TS services. Whether, strategically, the consumer landscape is sufficiently improved by the combined forces of CA and Which? such that public safety, consumer rights, and trader behaviour, are all in the right place in the 21st century is an interesting question.

It’s important to differentiate between TS and CA. CA relies to a greater extent on voluntary contributors to enable it to provide its services, many of whom are not sufficiently qualified in social care, but will undergo a short course before they become an adviser. I do have a relative that is one of these advisers, a retired businessman who I know well enough to establish his ability to help people at times of great need. I would hesitate before approaching such a person.

TS on the other hand, are a government body employing inspectors to test and examine goods and services to establish their safety, their content and their fitness for purpose. The two are quite separate and disconnected.

The reason I want local Trading Standards properly resourced to help all consumers is that they are specialists, professionally- trained to handle consumer issues and should be accountable to us, something a voluntary organisation cannot do.

As for CA offering a “triage” system for vetting enquiries I don’t buy this as any valid reason. That service would better be offered by TS; my guess is many people would know when to contact them having, most probably, looked at their local authority services, or it could be simply offered by the local authority itself; they will receive diverse enquiries and could easily point us in the right direction.

I have nothing against CA, but consumer protection is such an important function that it merits full attention. Just as, of course, it should have a full-time Minister in the government.

Where does the funding come from, Malcolm? Should we cut the budget for social care?

With limited funding a triage system is an intelligent approach.

Why should we cut Social Care?

Do we not think consumer protection, as offered by Trading Standards, is sufficiently important to properly fund it, particularly when it can save lives, property and harm to us and our children? Let alone protection from fraud?

Perhaps we should have a constructive discussion about how we can fund it rather than why we cannot. So, for example, a government-funded organisation that also protects us from potential harm is Defence:
”……..That said, in November 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced additional funds for military expenditure, with UK defence spending seeing a significant nominal increase of around 12% in 2021, bringing the budget up to GPB50. 6 billion”. If I read the CTSI piece correctly we need around £1.6 bn a year to restore TS to what it was a decade ago. That is around 3% of the defence budget that saw this 12% increase.

This seems to sum up the state we have put local TS into, and it worries me when a major city like Liverpool has no dedicated TS apparently. https://www.tradingstandards.uk/news-policy/news-room/2021/on-the-state-of-trading-standards-and-consumer-protection

“Triage” is generally used in a medical sense where it is operated by suitably trained people to direct potential patients to the appropriate medical department or doctor. Enquiries to local authorities are best dealt with by suitably trained staff to direct enquiries to the correct department. I am not convinced that using general volunteers in either case is a good solution.

Many services would benefit from more funding and public money has to be used most effectively.

In this Conversation we are invited to discuss online marketplaces and the problem of unsafe goods, something that we are both very interested in and maybe we should focus on that.

The following comprehensive report may provide some insight into the UK financial budget in relation to social care.

health.org.uk – Spending Review 2021- What It Means For Social Care

In this Conversation we are invited to discuss online marketplaces and the problem of unsafe goods, something that we are both very interested in and maybe we should focus on that.”. I think we should look at ways of addressing ways we can deal with unsafe goods, a province of Trading Standards (funded by Government), rather than trying to divert attention away from relevant comments and solutions.

You raised Trading Standards on 1st Dec “nor do I understand why successive governments have run down Trading Standards to an extent that citizens of this country cannot rely on action being taken if they have a valid grievance against a company.“. Presumably you regard them as an important participant in this discussion? To deal with the “run down” criticism of Government we require increased funding, don’t we?

The introduction includes ”Governments also play a role in enforcing these responsibilities to ensure higher product safety standards.” Government (should) fund(s) one of the ways to achieve this.

I lot of the lack of funding issues were related to EEC1973 regulation Malcolm.

CTSI Strategy for Leaving the EU states:

”There are now immense retail chains that wield economies of scale and span regions, nations and international borders. Modern consumers increasingly access goods and services across the world through the tap of a phone screen or the click of a mouse.”

There is an invitation to become more involved by emailing policy@tsl.org.uk

More on TS post Brexit strategy see:

tradingstandards.uk – CTSI Strategy For Leaving The EU

This article should shed more light on government funding issues.

Which? are a member of Consumers International yet they have a disclaimer in the introduction that the “views…….. are not necessarily shared by Which?”.
@gmartin, George, do Which? share these views or not? It would be useful if Which? commented on the CI document. As CI say, this is an international problem, not just a national one, so supporting an international campaign against international companies would seem a sensible way to progress. It does not, of course, stop the UK government taking action in the meantime.

In Which? News today-
”Online shop Litfad sold me a dangerous faulty lamp and it won’t refund me, what can I do?”
Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2022/01/online-shop-litfad-sold-me-a-dangerous-faulty-lamp-and-it-wont-refund-me-what-can-i-do/ – Which?
An example of the dangers of buying online from an unknown source that trades with “a hundred factories in China” and is presumably based in the region. I say “unknown” but a quick look at reviews would tell you not to deal with them. 92% rate it “bad”. So why buy from them?
https://uk.trustpilot.com/review/litfad.com
The Consumer Rights Act is quoted as a way to get recompense. That should work with a UK based company but one based overseas outside UK legislative powers is not covered.

Legislation should be enacted to ensure that the host, if they participate materially in the transaction, is held liable for any failure to meet UK safety regulations. Whether eBay is any more than an advertiser should determine this. But if you, effectively, are a personal importer then there is no protection on offer; you need to check what you buy and who from and, if there is doubt, don’t.