Self-regulation is still underdeveloped in European consumer policy, in particular its two-sided form: self-regulation agreed upon by both trade and consumer organisations. In the Netherlands, dialogue between these parties is successful in an increasing number of sectors. After all, the Netherlands has a tradition of sorting out differences by consensus rather than by conflicts and litigation. It should be noted, however, that dialogue relating to General Terms and Conditions (GTCs) including disputes committees has been more successful than dialogue relating to informative labelling.
Informative labelling dialogue
In the eighties, a common approach was agreed for improving product information on a voluntary basis. Full use could then be made of specific product knowledge in various sectors, resulting in flexible adaptation to new developments. The information had to allow consumers to compare products and had to be provided by as many sector businesses as possible. The role of consumer organisations in improving information was that of a partner open to dialogue. The SER facilitated the dialogue on standardising informative labelling at sector level.
Our project focused on a general introduction of product information systems, leaving entrepreneurs free to structure this information for themselves. However, results have been disappointing. This may be because labelling encroached on the entrepreneurs’ core business, i.e. their marketing tools. Although the SER project resulted in a voluntary multi-stakeholder product information system in the carpet sector only, the system worked very well, once started. The Dutch system was a driving force in developing a European product information system in 2008, based on harmonised pictograms.
GTCs and dispute committee dialogue
Dialogue between Dutch trade and consumer organisations on GTCs has been very successful. The aim was to establish bipartisan sector GTCs, leading to the creation of a bilateral dispute committee. Launched as an experiment in the seventies, the dialogue has now extended to some fifty sectors of trade and industry and the number is still growing. The SER facilitates GTCs dialogue with procedural rules and independent expertise.
A proper complaints-handling system helps prevent disputes, which benefits both businesses and consumers. Moreover, if a complaint is well managed, consumers may show more loyalty to the business concerned. This is why the SER produced a special pamphlet for SMEs outlining how best to deal with complaints.
Dialogue parties periodically evaluate whether GTCs are still up-to-date. Rulings by the dispute committee are then reflected in GTCs. This creates a system in which the business-consumer relationship is constantly fine-tuned and adapted to changes in society.
The combination of bipartisan GTCs, proper complaint handling and easily accessible dispute resolution proves effective. For a quick introduction to the Dutch Approach to GTC and ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) in general, see this SER presentation. In addition, De Geschillencommissie also has a presentation of its own.
Past dialogue on informative labelling is now, as it were, re-emerging. The fact is that a sector that applies bipartisan GTCs creates broader expectations among consumers regarding its quality tools. Examples include labels such as product information systems, quality marks, certificates and recognition arrangements, which give rise to product guarantees, duties of care and safeguards relating to competence or the production process. It goes without saying that these other tools should not impair the bipartisan GTCs. When conditions are being negotiated, reference could also be made to other codes of conduct by which the sector (organisation) has already distinguished itself. The focus could be on cohesion in a double sense: cohesion when informing consumers and when using instruments for sector marketing over and above the statutory minimum.
The European Economic and Social Committee, the European SER, acts as a forum for the Single Market. That is why the ‘EESC’ has set up the Single Market Observatory, with the support of the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission. One of the ‘SMO’ activities is the running of an interactive information network, collecting information from EESC Members, their organizations and other ‘users’ and making the results widely known.
Extra attention in the SMO-database is given to the successful Dutch approach of two-sided self-regulation. The Secretary of the self-regulation dialogue, Thom van Mierlo paints a picture of it in a chapter of the book European Contract Law and the Welfare State (ed. J. Rutgers) by Europa Law Publishing, 2011. It is a colourful picture: next to the dialogue on GTCs, disputes committees and informative labelling also other kinds of product information as well as advertising are high-lighted. With the kind consent of the publisher you can read the chapter on the EESC website.
Thom van Mierlo
For an extended version of, more specifically, the texts on GTCs and dispute committees, with many legal details, see an earlier paper by the same author: Self-regulation for Dating Services: Consumer Protection on the Single Market. He looks closely at the appealing or even tempting trade sector of dating services, and ends up with observations on the future of a European dialogue. Again, this is a chapter of a book, this one called:The future of European Contract Law (eds. K. Boele-Woelki, F.W. Grosheide) by Kluwer Law International, 2007. With the kind consent of the publisher you can read the chapter here.