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Buying responsibly can lighten life

Marie-France Corre led consumer body UFC-Que Choisir's testing department for two decades. She talks to Oliver Rowland

1 January 2010

THINKING about how we act as consumers is good for both ourselves and the planet, says industrial design engineer Marie-France Corre. Formerly product testing head of UFC-Que Choisir, she is now an independent consultant advising businesses on responsible consumership and marketing and is the author of La Consommation Responsable de A à Z

What sort of problems did you endure with products at Que Choisir?

Twenty years ago we were not looking at issues to do with ethical consumership, it was more about technical suitability - like a grill pan that set on fire or a kettle that melted. These days it is more subtle and we are looking at issues of pollution or aggressive selling, especially ways in which people are forced to consume. For example, you might get an electric toothbrush that costs €10 and it comes with three brushes, but once those have been used each new one costs €4, or a €1 printer with expensive cartridges.

Then there are ways where manufacturers try to hide the real cost - for example by doing small versions presented as if they were cheaper, but which in fact are not.

Another new area is distance selling on the internet. You should be very careful if something is very cheap. Often these companies go bankrupt and you don’t get your purchase or they are out-and-out fraudsters, pretending to sell something they don’t have. You also often find that the company you are dealing with is not based in France - even though it might seem to be at a glace - and so it can be hard to get a refund.

Then there are the standard cases of misleading advertising - descriptions that don't match the product - that we have always had.

Now you are interested in responsible consumership?

Price remains the first concern for most French consumers, but groups of people are starting to take an interest in buying more responsibly. It increases year by year. The first thing they are usually concerned about is whether a product might have been made by child labour.

That’s the entry into responsible consuming for many people. There are some variations according to social class, but some people really have got it into their head that this is important and so I decided to concentrate on it.

I thought the French consumer organisations had not really integrated these concepts enough compared to some other countries, like Belgium, for example.

I took part in a European working group on companies’ social responsibilities and we created a kit for consumer bodies to help them to look at products with this in mind, but it still seemed to me the French bodies were focussed on aspects like whether a product is good value.

Can you tell if a product was not made by children?

Yes, with carpets, for example, where there is known to be a problem, there is the RugMark or the Step label, or for example you can look for commerce équitable (fair trade) labels on footballs.
Sometimes manufacturers also put their own guarantees on the products.

Does responsible consuming mean you pay more?

Not necessarily. For a start, sometimes a responsible “purchase” is the one you didn’t make - so that’s not expensive at all. Take lingettes (wet wipes) - they are expensive and they are not very good for the environment, various chemical products are used in making them and they add to waste must be disposed. Do you really need them?

Another example is bottled water. You really don’t need it in France and if you don’t buy it you will save money.

Eat less red meat, you don’t need to buy grated carrots or cooked eggs or ready-cooked omelettes. Also avoid waste. In rich countries we waste 30 - 50% of our food.

Responsible consuming means avoiding over-processed, over-packaged goods and not buying things packed in small quantities because they will be expensive for what you get.

You don’t have to look for special labels like organic produce - yes, it is a good idea, if you can afford it, but it’s not the first priority.

Another thing to consider is rental. Do you need a big, expensive drill? You could just hire one when you have a job that needs to be done.

Are some labels more meaningful than others?

We have put up a guide to about 100 of them at www. mescoursespourlaplanete.com [see Mini-guide des labels on the site] Some are well-known, like the AB logo for organic food or the European organic logo, but after that it gets a bit vague and it’s not easy for people to find their way around. There is the European eco-label, though most French people don’t know what it is compared with some countries like Denmark where it is very well-known. It is not used on a lot of products, partly because people don’t know what it means, so it’s a vicious circle.

Often products with labels like these - detergents, toilet paper, paints, or office paper - are no more expensive than other ones and they are not products where brand is especially important, so it is no more effort to take such a product compared to another one. People should develop the reflex of always buying the one with the eco-label.

What about this indice carbone (carbon index) we see now? Is that useful?

It is a chicken and egg situation. This already exists at Casino, based on what Tesco does in the UK. I think shoppers don’t really know what it means yet, however the more they see it the more they will find it meaningful.

Someone might find it hard to understand how a carbon figure on their yogurt compares to the fact an average family produces 14 tonnes of CO2 a year, but I think it is useful and helps raise awareness. However it will only be really successful if it is combined with tax measures to make the more environmentally-friendly choices cheaper.

The government plans to bring in a new system of environmental labelling for various products next year - though I think it will be delayed - but if there is not a financial incentive it is not enough. In the Netherlands they created incentives to buy washing machines with a label A [the lowest of the EU’s A-G energy labelling system] and it has worked well, but in France even though there are machines with the label A the customers don’t pay much attention to it.

The fact that over five years they will make a saving because it uses less energy is not really taken into account. So I think labels help, but tax measures are needed too.

The government said they would look at the idea, but it has been shelved - though we do have the bonus-malus [bonus and penalty system, rewarding the purchase of eco-friendly models while taxing heavy polluters] for cars, which is something.

It is a complex issue and important criteria vary according to the product. For example with cosmetics the carbon dioxide produced might not be significant but the question of whether they are biodegradable is an important one.

Are you optimistic people will take all this on board?

I am optimistic, but at the same time some people resent it and think it is negative and is just about making sacrifices - they say, “but I liked buying a lot of stuff and now I am supposed to feel guilty about it and things are being taken away or are going to get more expensive.”

People need to realise we all have good reasons to consume less and differently and if we do it we feel lighter. It’s good to simplify your life.

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