Project Summaries 2010-2011 - Option consommateurs

2120 Sherbrooke East, Suite 303
Montreal, Quebec
H2K 1C3
Tel.: 514-598-7288
Fax: 514-598-8511

1. Health Claims and Consumer Food Choices


Health Canada is currently modernizing its health claim management (any representation in packaging and advertising that states, suggests or assumes the existence of a relationship between health and the consumption of food or food constituents). In September 2009, after a major consultation process, Health Canada published an action plan comprising six (6) issues. For each of these issues, the action plan identified weaknesses to be addressed in current research. Health Canada thus emphasizes the importance of better understanding “what impact health claims have on consumer food choices”. Given the multiplication of all kinds of health claims on pre packaged foods, both in Canada and worldwide, more and more consumer associations are questioning what impact these claims have on consumer food choices. They also want to know if these claims allow healthy competition by enabling consumers to make informed choices, based on appropriate distinguishing factors.

This research project will partially answer Health Canada’s question, with special emphasis on front-of-package-labelling health claims.

More specifically, Option consommateurs (OC) seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the needs of Canadian consumers with regard to nutritional claims?
  2. How do consumers use front-of-package-labelling nutritional claims?
  3. What preferences do consumers have with regard to such claims?
  4. Do Canadians with low literacy skills use these claims in a different way?

The research project thus aims to identify the needs of Canadian consumers regarding health claims, and to find out how they perceive them, to contribute to Health Canada’s current modernization process.

Expected Outcome

This research project will enable consumer associations to obtain more complete information about the linkages between health claims and consumer food choices. OC will thus be able to propose a series of recommendations to Health Canada in connection with its modernization project.

2. Class Action Suits: Models and Tools for Practitioners


The class action suits currently used are difficult to understand. Practitioners draw them up in language ill suited to the persons for whom these suits are intended. Practitioners lack the necessary skills to draw up suits in language these consumers can understand. It is in their interest to obtain assistance and especially tools. In evaluating research by Option consommateurs (OC), entitled "Notice to Participants in Class Actions: Effective Communications Strategy?" (March 2009), the methodological expert deemed that there should have been consumer focus groups. OC seeks to fill this gap.

Focus groups will make it possible to obtain feedback on how consumers understand class action suits. This is the best tool to convince practitioners of the importance of changing how they draw up suits.

Expected Outcome

Implementing this project should make it easier for consumers to understand class action suits, and thus make justice more accessible to them. OC also seeks to make practitioners aware of consumer concerns, and give them access to writing tools.

3. From Communication to Engagement of Civil Society Organizations


Public authorities increasingly call on consumer associations to take part in a spectrum of activities ranging from consultation to more active roles of public consultation. Consumer groups can see many benefits in becoming involved in public consultation activities. However, these processes can be cumbersome, costly and time-consuming to say the least. This is true both for those who initiate public consultation processes and those who take part in them.

Option consommateurs (OC) regularly contributes to public consultation activities. Experience has taught OC that several departments or agencies are often interested in the same issues at substantially the same time. OC has also found that some government agencies have state-of-the-art expertise in public consultation, while others have very little expertise. (The latter sometimes adopt muddled approaches without being too sure where they are going.) This is all very costly for the Government of Canada, makes these activities of little benefit to consumer associations and slows down public policy development.

Many empirical studies have focused on the various types of public consultation activities. They have studied the various levels of public participation: consultation, awareness, discussion, engagement of stakeholders, partnership.) OC feels that none of these studies has sought to determine and qualitatively measure the experience of the various stakeholders, with the aim of making general recommendations. This is what OC wishes to do so.

This project will seek to answer the following questions:

  1. For three given public consultation activities of the Government of Canada:
    • How do civil-society stakeholders see their role and contribution?
    • What improvements could be made?
  2. Generally speaking,
    • How do civil-society stakeholders see public consultation activities?
    • What role could government play in improving these activities?

Expected Outcome

This project will give OC a better idea of the attitude of civil society organizations toward public consultation processes. Option consommateurs will also be able to propose strategies to the Government to maximize the use of its resources and to increase interest among the consumer associations the Government seeks to involve, by making such processes more effective.

4. Understanding and Intelligibility of Transactional Sites of Financial Institutions


Canadian consumers increasingly use online banking services to conduct business with their financial institutions. In 2008, the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA) reported that a majority of Canadians (53%) performed online banking transactions through the transactional sites of the major banks, and 35% of Canadians chiefly use this means to perform their banking transactions. Banks are offering more and more tools, so that consumers can do business directly with their financial institutions, through a computer or cell phone. Consumers benefit from performing online banking transactions, but are there pitfalls as well?

This research project aims to determine the readability and understanding of transactional sites, by analyzing the transactional sites of traditional financial institutions (major Canadian banks, credit unions and a provincially regulated institution), virtual banks (ING, Citizens Bank, and so on), and some new players (President’s Choice, Canadian Tire, Sears, and so on).

Expected Outcome

The results of this research project will give Option consommateurs a better knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of using transactional sites, in terms of readability and understanding. OC can then inform consumers and more effectively make representations to government agencies involved in financial services.

5. Carbon Content Labelling of Consumer Products: More Than Just Hot Air?


“Green” products increasingly appeal to consumers. According to a survey conducted in the United States and the United Kingdom, 38% of consumers say they choose a product based on the manufacturer’s environmentally friendly practices, and 30% say they have not purchased a product because the manufacturer’s practices were not environmentally friendly. Given this interest, manufacturers have begun to make numerous environmental claims on their product labelling. For example, they say their products are biodegradable, recyclable or produced using green energy. Carbon content claims could make it possible for manufacturers to go even further. According to a study conducted by Consumers International and AccountAbility, 60% of consumers would like to have more point-of-sale information in this regard. This is probably why, in the past two years, we have seen the worldwide emergence of a multitude of piecemeal projects to inform consumers about the carbon content of products, especially in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, England (Tesco) and France (Casino).

These initiatives are complex and sue many tools or mechanisms, even international standards, to achieve their goals. Each of these processes has its share of advantages and disadvantages. Measuring carbon content is not a simple task. Costly means may be required to achieve an acceptable degree of accuracy. This leads some organizations to use more affordable methods and thus provide approximate measurements. Sometimes, the end result depends, not so much on the industrial process itself, but on the method used to calculate emissions.

Before carbon content claims are widely used in Canada - which is only a matter of time, judging by what is happening worldwide - six consumer issues must be raised:

  1. What do consumers expect in terms of indicating carbon content on consumer products?
  2. How do consumers react to this type of information?
  3. How do the laws of other countries govern business practices with regard to labelling carbon content?
  4. What measures promote healthy competition?
  5. What method should Canada favour?
  6. What is the Government’s role?

Expected Outcome

This research project aims to understand the different ways of measuring and providing information about the carbon content of consumer products, to determine what Canadian consumers expect, and to assess their understanding and perceptions in this regard.

6. Financing Plans Offered by Retailers of Furniture and Household Appliances: Analysis of Contracts and Information Provided to Consumers


In Quebec, retailers of furniture, household appliances and electronic equipment offer several types of financing plans, such as “no money down and no interest”. These plans have existed for a long time and have changed considerably in recent years. They have increased in number, and new products and contracts have emerged. Moreover, Option consommateurs (OC) has observed that, in their advertising and in the documents they provide to clients (or get clients to sign) when credit is approved, retailers or finance companies fail to indicate several items of information. Often, there is no mention of the finance company or the interest rate charged if payment is in arrears. In some cases, retailers also neglect to inform consumers that they will receive a credit card, or will be entitled to a credit limit higher than the amount needed to pay for the purchase. In the course of its efforts, OC has found that consumers in debt often poorly understand how these means of financing work. As a result, it is often hard for them to see the risks.

This study aims to diagnose the status of financing plans offered by Quebec retailers of furniture and household appliances.

More specifically, OC will seek to answer the following questions:

  • What are the various means of financing available on the market?
  • What credit information do retailers and finance companies provide to consumers? When and how is this information provided?
  • When consumers apply for financing, what do they understand of the information provided to them, and what do they need to know?
  • What is the current legislative framework?
  • What measures might we consider to inform and protect consumers more effectively?

Expected Outcome

OC will be able to determine whether there are information gaps, and whether these gaps constitute an obstacle for consumers who want to make smart choices. Moreover, analyzing the current legal framework will enable OC to determine whether this framework is enough to protect consumers properly. Finally, the public opinion aspect of this research will enable OC to educate people more effectively and to recommend the best steps to take, so that consumers can make intelligent choices and use these means of credit wisely.