22nd March 2022

Speaking out for consumers

By becoming involved in the Consumer Public Interest Network of representatives, TSOs can gain a seat at the table when new standards are being developed.

By Richard Young
We get exposed to a lot of intelligence when investigating non-compliance, which gives us a unique understanding of unsafe products
A lot of people have been forced online when they might not have been before, which might mean they’re a bit less savvy when making purchases

When it was founded in 1951, the Consumer Public Interest Network (CPIN) was a women-only organisation established to keep an eye on the safety of domestic appliances. As it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, much has changed – the organisation allows men to join its network now, for one thing – yet its core remit of representing the consumer voice in the development of standards remains the same.

CPIN has expanded beyond domestic appliances to address five key areas. In addition to its focus on consumer safety, it considers consumer vulnerability as a factor in making goods and services fair and inclusive; it advocates for improved digital services that keep personal data secure and protect consumers in their online activities; it works to keep interactive services such as adventure holidays safe; and it encourages businesses to follow sustainable practices that help consumers make informed green choices.

This broad spectrum of activities is made possible by CPIN’s community of representatives who sit in on meetings when new standards are being developed. Although it is an independent organisation, CPIN is supported by the British Standards Institute (BSI), which serves as a secretariat. CPIN is also part of the Consumer Forum – as Helen Gray, Consumer Engagement Executive at BSI, explains: “The Consumer Forum is a council of organisations that meet twice a year to discuss issues and emerging areas where we know consumer stakeholders need to get involved in standardisation.

“In terms of how CPIN works as a network, it’s a very collaborative approach. We have representatives
who sit on various committees or standards. This year, we’ve started developing support groups so if they’re working on particularly high-profile or intensive projects, they have people to bounce ideas off and help spread some of the workload. We want to make it as collaborative as possible.”

According to CPIN Chair, Julie Hunter, “BSI and other national standards bodies have an obligation to include the consumer stakeholder voice wherever it’s relevant. Often we could be outnumbered – there can be a bit of an imbalance when you’re on a committee and there’s one consumer representative, and lots of other stakeholders from business there. So it’s really important to get that voice across strongly to make sure key consumer issues are addressed.”

CPIN’s interests dovetail neatly with those of trading standards, and trading standards officers make ideal CPIN representatives. They are able to combine a theoretical expertise in consumer protection legislation with practical, up-to-date knowledge of real-world examples of consumer detriment, as well as their own experiences from their personal lives.

Michelle McKenna, Senior Trading Standards Officer at North Lanarkshire Council, has been one of CPIN’s representatives for the past three years. “I first became aware of CPIN at CTSI Symposium,” she says. “It was really quite interesting for me to be able to become involved in standards, not from an enforcement perspective, but to represent the collective interest of consumers from a position of knowledge and having an understanding of the background.

“I’ve got a particular interest in safety standards. I wanted to become more involved and influence their development; CPIN was an ideal route to do that.”

Emma Hope, Acting Principal Trading Standards Officer at Hertfordshire County Council, also serves as a CPIN representative. “It’s another way to protect consumers,” she says. “It allows us to understand and have influence over standards. We’re very familiar with the regulations, and it helps us to develop the educational side as well about how standards are made.

“As trading standards officers, we are privy to what are the high priority areas. We get exposed to a lot of intelligence when investigating non-compliance, which gives us a unique understanding of unsafe products. It also gives us a unique opportunity to understand what the average consumer behaves like.”

Evidence of harm

“We need to be able to go into committees with evidence of consumer harm to make sure risks are mitigated,” Hunter says. “It’s really important that we identify real consumer needs and experiences. The sorts of problems that people are having in their everyday lives need to be addressed. Industry want their products to be safe but sometimes they’re looking at it from a different perspective and they may not know about all of the problems consumers are having.”

Both McKenna and Hope have brought their experiences of parenthood into the standards development process. “I have two children so obviously, anything child-related has always been a passion, says Hope. “Magnetic toys are an issue and something that we’re looking at.”

McKenna herself has been instrumental in bringing the dangers of button batteries to people’s attention. “There’s been a real increase in the number of incidents where children swallow button or coin batteries,” she says. “Once they do that they can get stuck, and can cause burns. In the last few years this has led to loss of life or life-changing injuries for some children. Within the toy safety regulations and standards, button and coin batteries had to be secured with a screw. But for other products, like bathroom scales and novelty cards, that requirement wasn’t there. So there was a kind of gap.”

To fill that gap, following the input of McKenna and others, BSI created a Publicly Available Specification (PAS) – a form of fast-tracked standardisation document. “The PAS is there to improve the safety of these products and increase awareness in terms of the risks and hazards,” says McKenna.

“A lot of consideration had gone into warnings on the packaging and on the battery, but at the point when a child actually swallows a button battery, the packaging will be thrown away. The only thing that you’re likely to have is the product itself with the missing battery. It’s important that a parent realises straight away that they need to take urgent action. So the PAS was about changing the messaging and putting warning labels on products, and in the retail environment having posters at the point of sale so people understood they are a hazard to children.”

McKenna also raises the issue of magnetic toys – in this case, magnetic beads, which have become must-have items in many Christmas stockings. “These magnets are really, really strong,” she points out. “And they look a bit like Tic Tacs, or the smaller ones look like hundreds and thousands. So if a child thinks they’re a sweet and swallows them, they get joined together in their digestive system and break through the intestinal walls. There have been a couple of children that have died and several that have been injured.”

New complexity

The importance of looking out for consumers has never been greater, particularly in this age of new routes to market and new ways of buying goods and services, Hunter believes. “I think there’s an assumption sometimes that everything you find for sale is safe,” she says. “But the problem we have now is complex supply chains. One thing that we’re really concerned about is online marketplaces. More people are buying from them and they don’t know what regulations have been followed, what quality standards have been met for many of these products.

“I don’t think consumers are necessarily aware; they see something and they think, ‘Well, that’s a charger for my phone’, and they just buy it – and they just assume it’s going to meet the safety standards, and it doesn’t.”

It isn’t just consumers who are sometimes in the dark; often businesses haven’t really considered how their products are likely to be used. “Quite often, manufacturers or retailers are just looking at intended use,” says Hunter. “For example, with laser pointers. When they first came out, they were just meant to be used for pointing at a blackboard. But actually, kids are going to pick them up and shine them into each other’s eyes.

“On domestic appliances, the testing labs used to only have to use an adult-sized test finger to make sure that it couldn’t access live parts, for example around the back of a fridge, because the manufacturers said the intended user was an adult. Of course, fridges are kept in kitchens, which are family rooms, and if a child’s toy car goes underneath, they might reach under there to get it out. We campaigned to get a child-sized test finger included in the testing so that it was also safe for children, even though they were not seen as the intended users of that appliance.”

Digital dilemmas

“The other thing we’re really focusing on at the moment is digital services. During the pandemic, a lot of people have been forced online when they might not have been before, which might mean they’re a bit less savvy when making purchases. If they haven’t traditionally done things online, they might not be taking as much care or be as aware of the risks. So we’re looking at things like vulnerability; I’ve just finished work on an international standard for vulnerability and inclusive service. We’re looking at things like algorithms and ‘dark patterns’, and how your choices online could be limited by the algorithms at work behind the scenes.

“We have also been looking at things like adventure tourism. We worked on a British standard which became an international standard, because this is all about people travelling. It makes sure that trips are designed and planned safely. It’s about the knowledge and competence of the leaders and what to do if there’s an emergency situation. That has been quite effective as well.”

To further its reach and maintain its effectiveness, Hunter says, CPIN is always on the lookout for new recruits. “We have about 60-plus volunteers, and our aim is to diversify our network,” she says. “We have been very lucky lately to get some people on board from trading standards. If their employer will let them take time out to work on these standards, that’s really beneficial for us.”

The benefits of joining CPIN go both ways, McKenna says. “In my day job as a trading standards officer, it gives me contacts with product safety experts and charities that are involved with product safety, and I’m linking in with them a lot more and helping them out as well. That’s all come from my involvement with CPIN.”

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