So, you want to buy a baby crib? A treadmill for your home gym? Or a new car? If you’re smart, you’ll do plenty of homework to learn all you can about the safety of those products. And what about the food you eat, the cosmetics you use, and even that big screen TV you’re planning to pick up for this weekend’s Super Bowl watch party?
Hope you’ve done your homework. Literally every single product you and your family consume has the potential to cause you harm—if not physical harm, at least financial harm. To make the smartest buying decisions, you need reliable data. Not just anecdotal reports, but research-based, unbiased information.
A resource used by millions of Americans (as well as many others) is Consumer Reports, the nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to independent product testing, consumer-oriented research, public education, and consumer advocacy.
And to educate yourself on marketplace issues that affect your purchasing decisions, you can turn to Buyer Aware: Harnessing Our Consumer Power for a Safe, Fair, and Transparent Marketplace. The author is Marta L. Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports.
Before joining Consumer Reports, Tellado served as vice president at the Ford Foundation, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Domestic Policy Group, and vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. She earned her PhD at Yale University.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You note that Big Tech companies—Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple—“have amassed enough muscle to snuff out rivals and co-opt ideas for start-ups.” In the face of that marketplace dominance, what’s the smartest approach entrepreneurs can take to get traction with new businesses?
Marta L. Tellado: What’s good for consumers is often good for entrepreneurs. A more competitive marketplace lifts all boats. We’ve seen increased concern around tech monopolies, creating a market opportunity for new businesses, especially those providing consumers with something the giants won’t. For example, DuckDuckGo, a search engine that values consumer data privacy, has been successful as a more consumer-friendly alternative to Google.
The voices of entrepreneurs and consumers will be critical in advocating for new laws countering the growth and concentration of market power in the hands of digital monopolies. Last year, several bills had bipartisan support, but they still didn’t make it to the finish line. This year, we need the help of entrepreneurs, who won’t be able to compete in a marketplace stacked against them. Big Tech won’t give up power willingly, so entrepreneurs and consumers must work together to change the digital economy.
Duncan: When using the Internet, what steps can consumers take to prevent their private information from being misused?
Tellado: When we surveyed consumers in 2022, only 7% of people were very confident that their personal data was private and not distributed without their knowledge. It’s justified – countless companies are selling your information to the highest bidder.
That’s one reason CR created our free Security Planner, which takes you through a step-by-step process to improve control over your data and strengthen your online security, like keeping your operating systems up-to-date and setting up multi-factor authentication to protect accounts.
Duncan: It’s clear that devices like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home have the ability to eavesdrop on private conversations. What other kinds of household devices should privacy-minded consumers be cautious in using?
Tellado: The short answer is – anything with an internet connection. People should be especially wary of devices with microphones or cameras. A CR investigation found that video doorbells can record conversations from 20 or 30 feet away. That has serious implications for private conversations in your own home or even when walking by your neighbor’s house.
Duncan: The bomb-throwers all along the political spectrum accuse each other of peddling fake news and misinformation. What are your suggestions for staying informed by reliable, non-biased sources?
Tellado: It’s gotten harder to distinguish fact from fiction online. We rely on the internet for shopping, news, and more, but the burden is too often on consumers to determine what’s unbiased, what’s an ad, and what’s misinformation.
That’s part of why our 6 million members joined Consumer Reports. They know we’re an independent nonprofit, that science guides our work, that we buy the products we test, and that we never accept advertising. Those commitments build trust.
So if you’re turning to online sources that are not transparent about their business model, my advice is to question the authenticity of anything you read. Check if it’s “sponsored” content, meaning it’s advertising. Caution costs only a few minutes, while the alternative could cost much more.
Duncan: All the hubbub around Covid issues—lockdowns, mask mandates, propaganda campaigns regarding vaccines—damaged the reputations of previously credible sources and institutions. What can be done to restore public confidence in what the “experts” say about important health issues?
Tellado: Widespread concern about COVID has been warranted. Millions have died, businesses shut down, and our way of life changed practically overnight. That said, public confidence was shaken in part because of confusion about the scientific process. Science is based on the best available information, and it changes with new data. It makes sense that guidance evolved as we learned more. This was a singular moment when the data and science around a life-threatening virus were evolving in real time with human lives at stake. We were learning new things everyday, and that made the environment ripe for misinformation.
Unfortunately, while we live in a world where life-saving information can reach people instantaneously through social media, we don’t have systems in place to moderate or stop the spread of dangerous misinformation.
That’s where platform accountability comes in. It is literally a life and death issue. Companies must take their responsibility to combat obvious fraud and misinformation seriously. If they won’t rethink their approach to moderation, consumers will need legal reforms to compel them.
Duncan: What long-term effect do you expect Elon Musk’s take-over of Twitter will have on free speech?
Tellado: Platforms are private, so free speech is not intrinsically guaranteed. But given their millions, and in some cases billions, of users, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and others have become the public square. This is where consumer rights are truly civil rights, but our legal framework has not caught up with the realities of the digital marketplace.
It’s cause for alarm when a company of Twitter’s scale removes guardrails and experts required to review questionable and dangerous content while silencing journalists and other voices on the platform for critiquing the owner. Rather than focus on one company or leader, we need a radical rethink of accountability, so that our digital lives reflect and support the rights we have secured in our offline lives.
Duncan: What role does free speech play in consumers’ confidence in the products and services they buy?
Tellado: Free speech and consumer power are innately linked: Markets are about supply and demand, and consumers need the free flow of information to be able to effectively demand more and better.
As consumer advocates, we’ve seen attempts to silence us. One example is the resistance we faced from the Consumer Product Safety Commission when we wanted to educate consumers about Fisher-Price’s Rock ‘n Play, an inclined sleeper that, along with its knockoffs, was eventually linked to over 100 infant deaths. Fisher-Price knew that the product was dangerous, and so did the CPSC, but it took years to get it recalled, in part because a loophole, called Section 6(b), requires the CPSC to seek companies’ permission before releasing information about their products.
CR only found out about the deaths because of a bureaucratic snafu: the CPSC mistakenly released the information to us when they failed to redact the manufacturer’s name in a dataset about deaths related to sleepers.
When we reached out for comment, the CPSC’s lawyers sent us letters demanding the data be destroyed and not published – the government was attempting to suppress free speech, putting children in danger. We had a choice: Back down to the pressure or go forward with our report, regardless of the consequences.
We were confident in our First Amendment rights and moral place: put consumers first – put these children first. Two weeks after we published our exposé, Fisher-Price recalled millions of sleepers, and last year, we secured a federal law banning these dangerous infant products.
It shows how our right to speak out against our system is critical to building a better marketplace for all.
Duncan: One of the sub headlines in your book is “Algorithms Have a Race Problem.” Tell us about that.
Algorithms are decision making tools that permeate everything from what you see online to how much you pay for services, but they aren’t visible or transparent.
Algorithms themselves don’t harbor discriminatory attitudes, but they’re designed by humans steeped in societal bias. A 2018 CR investigation found car insurance pricing that was based on zip code, not driving record, leading to higher prices for communities of color. Similarly, using education and income levels in algorithms deciding insurance pricing perpetuates discrimination in the marketplace that we’ve fought to erase.
When our economic agency is undermined, so is our power to function as free, equal members of our democracy. That’s why consumer rights are civil rights. Companies must view their product and service design through a lens of safety and fairness, and responsible AI is essential.
Duncan: How can the average citizen help build a consumer-first marketplace?
Tellado: My book is called Buyer Aware because the first step is awareness.
We must recognize our personal power as consumers. We may go to the polls a few times a year, but we’re in the marketplace every day. Hold companies accountable with your business. Report dangerous products to government agencies. Use consumer tools to strengthen your rights, like CR’s Permission Slip, an app to help you control what personal data companies keep about you.
We’re also a collective force and need to demand change. I’ve seen how people can transform the marketplace and save lives. In December, Congress passed the STURDY Act to help prevent deadly furniture tip overs. That victory wouldn’t have been possible without parents who lost children to irresponsibly-built furniture coming together and demanding guidelines putting human life first.
You can go to BuyerAware.CR.org to find other ways to take action, from getting lead out of your favorite dark chocolate to ending loopholes for predatory lenders that leave you in a whirlpool of debt.
Duncan: What question do you wish I had asked, but didn’t … and how would you respond?
A question I get a lot is: Things seem bleak—can they get better?
When people ask that, I think of Rachel Carson. When she wrote Silent Spring in 1962, we were fighting against environmental threats we often couldn’t see, feel, touch, or taste. But citizen voices prevailed over giant corporations and unrestrained use of harmful chemicals.
Today, we’re battling a new set of harms we can’t always see in the digital world where the pace of technology has outrun consumer protections, from biased algorithms to companies selling our personal data.
I think we’re turning a corner and seeing a new generation of consumers demanding more ethical behavior from companies. 77% of Gen Z say they consider ethics and social impact when forming opinions of a company.
We’re also seeing some victories, like the Federal Trade Commission fining telemedicine company GoodRx $1.5 million after a CR investigation exposed it shared customers’ sensitive health information with third-parties. And New York ended the year on a high note for consumers by passing the Digital Fair Repair Act, which gave New Yorkers more control and choices in how they repair their electronics, saving them money and cutting down on waste.
Change is possible, but won’t happen unless we demand it—unless we use our consumer power and work with companies and government to build a more fair, transparent, and safe marketplace.
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