Turunen MEP: ‘There are many situations that can make us vulnerable as consumers’

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This article is part of our special report Products for a greener planet.

Danish MEP Emilie Turunen explains why the European Commission should strengthen protections for the elderly, disabled and other potentially vulnerable consumers.

Emilie Turunen is the Green party spokeswoman on the European Parliament’s Internal Affairs and Consumer Protection Committee. She was interviewed by EURACTIV as the Parliament voted in Strasbourg on a resolution calling for stronger protections for vulnerable consumers.

What recommendations are you making on consumer rights?

Emilie Turunen is the Green party spokeswoman on the European Parliament’s Internal Affairs and Consumer Protection Committee. She was interviewed by EURACTIV as the Parliament voted in Strasbourg on a resolution calling for stronger protections for vulnerable consumers.

What recommendations are you making on consumer rights?

What we are saying is that the existing legislature on consumer issues in Europe does not make enough consideration of vulnerable consumers. We’re are trying to define it a little bit better by saying, there are some groups that are more vulnerable than others – for example, children and young people. They are more receptive and susceptible. There are disabled people and groups that are vulnerable when it comes to aggressive marketing and commercials.

We are also saying that there are many situations that can make us vulnerable as consumers. For example people who sell at the door, which is much more common in other countries in Europe than in Denmark, where you feel the pressure to make a purchase because someone is standing outside your door. In such a situation you perhaps should be given a longer time to regret that purchase.

It might also be a vulnerable situation to be at the bank and be presented a financial product which is difficult to understand even for the well-educated. So we are saying that ‘vulnerability’ can be understood in two ways.

We want this to be a more concrete part of the legislation. We need to make these considerations. What I have been focused on has especially been marketing targeting children and young people regarding alcohol and tobacco. Some countries have strict regulation and some have some liberal approaches, and I would like to see a common approach in Europe.

Another thing is the internet where it’s a new situation for many to buy things online. We have heard about many cases with children who play on their parents’ iPhones and iPads and then at the same time [made] some purchases in the app store for a lot of money. So I have said when it comes to the internet and new technologies, we need to have a stricter legislation. 

What specific rights will these vulnerable consumers get?

What we are trying to tell the Commission is that until now it has not been good enough the way we have made consumer regulation. There isn’t a special consideration. Here you can choose between two strategies. You can either make the sector legislation better or the legislation in each country. Or we can make a more horizontal legislation: a broad legislation that says, “We understand these groups as vulnerable,” and then establish some fundamental rights for vulnerable consumers in Europe.

So there hasn’t been any legislation so far considering vulnerable groups. They have just considered children and then not gone any further?

Yes. There has not been… It was actually a big debate when we first made the Consumer Rights Directive because people were saying that we didn’t have a proper definition of a vulnerable consumer. They said it was a word that was too difficult to make specific. With this report, we are trying to say that there are certain, vulnerable groups who need extra protection, both on the internet and in the physical world.

Maybe we need some common guidelines in Europe. Right now each member state decides what to do. In the example I gave with children and young people and alcohol and tobacco, France has a very strict legislation whereas Denmark has a liberal legislation. There are some guidelines in Denmark that say business can’t deliberately target young people, but some commercials have been on the borderline. There has been a discussion now for a long time in Denmark if we should have stricter regulations, and what I’m saying is that on a European level we could consider having some common guidelines. 

Would you say that the internet has made it more difficult to be a consumer for more vulnerable groups?

Yes, I would actually say that. Obviously, you could experience bad things in the past regarding marketing and specific purchases as a consumer, but the internet has opened some doors for scam companies and then there are some websites with “one click shopping”.

Where you just by clicking… You have suddenly bought a whole range of things without even knowing about it. The other day, I bought a book on Amazon, and I think that it quickly went to the purchase part. The website had already registered me as a costumer and given me an account. When I wanted another book, I just had to click on it, and then I had already bought it. So you have to be very cautious on the internet. I think that both older and younger people can get confused on these websites and end up buying products they didn’t want.

The internet is an amazing thing. It opens doors, but there are also some bad things about it that we have to have a look at. Especially children who play via iPads and iPhones. There have been some cases because when you have an account and [it] is registered as a user, then with only a few clicks you have bought many things already. It’s an unfortunate situation. The internet opens some pitfalls that we need to curb.

A spokesperson from The Danish Consumer Protection Ombudsman said she has not received many complaints from disadvantaged people. But she said she didn’t know whether that was because there are no complaints or because it’s more difficult for them to complain. Do you think Denmark is ahead of other countries when it comes to protecting vulnerable consumers? 

When we made the Consumer Rights Directive, I spoke to many Danish consumer protection organizations and they said that they had realized that Denmark isn’t ahead of other nations which they had always thought.

When it comes to consumer rights, we’re not in the front seat compared to other countries. In Denmark, we often have a picture of ourselves… You can compare it to gender equality, where we think we are a leading nation, but it’s actually not true. We are actually quite average, and it’s the same thing with consumer regulations. There are many things that we can learn from other countries.

For example, I’m very strict when it comes to children and young people. I’d like to have a ban on alcohol commercials. But, obviously, that is not something that is popular. I remember a debate years ago where Carlsberg [a beermaker] was defending its right to advertise. You can’t keep commercials away from children, but I just think it creates a certain culture…

But Denmark is good when it comes to giving the consumers easy ways to complain, we have a lot of transparency, and our consumers do have a lot of knowledge.

Whether the internet excludes some people, is a more general debate. Many public services are being digitized. It’s super progressive and good, but we also have to remember to make special services for people who don’t know how to navigate through the internet. It’s not natural to go online if you are 85 years old. We need to make these considerations in the transformation from the paperless society. Those who don’t feel safe using it should be able to get help learning how to use it, or we should keep the paper option for them still. It’s a very important debate.

Can you give an example of a case where you thought “This is the worst thing for a consumer, and I do not want this to happen again for anyone”?

I remember the case with a Danish mum who had allowed her son to play on her iPad. She had logged in, and suddenly he had bought games for around 8,000-10,000 Danish crowns [€1,000- €1,345].

The boy was just five years old. This does not work. Children should be able to play on their parents’ iPads without the parents suddenly getting a huge amount of debt. That was when I thought, ‘Technology is moving fast, and we have to do the same’.

Also, the sale of lottery coupons to mentally disabled people is just morally outrageous. This is also a grey area, because a mentally handicapped person should be able to buy a lottery coupon, but if he has suddenly spent 20,000 crowns, then something is wrong. These are some of the cases where you have just suddenly spent a lot of money that you probably didn’t want to spend.

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