Consumer Reports‘ President and CEO Jim Guest is in town to give a talk Thursday night at Virginia Tech entitled “How to be a Smart Consumer and Engaged Activist in the 21st Century.” The event is free. It begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Graduate Life Center auditorium.
Guest spoke this morning with reporters. Below is a selection of questions and answers from that session.
Q: What’s your main message tonight for the audience at Tech?
A: My main message is going to be, I think, the need for strong active consumers is the greatest it’s ever been. And I’m going to encourage the students that I talk with and others in the audience to get involved and get engaged. I think what we’ve seen now with the various digital means of communication, is that it’s much easier than it’s ever been before to really rally grassroots consumer public support on issue.
You saw when Bank of America wanted to start charging a $5 fee for people using debit cards. Within about a week or two weeks that ended. There was an uprising. We at Consumers Union and Consumer Reports, we generated tens of thousands of emails to Bank of America protesting what they were doing. You’ve also seen it when Verizon a short while ago wanted to add a $2 fee for people who people who paid by certain means. That lasted about three days.
I think you’ve seen some other issues as well, that consumers are connecting, and there really is a stronger and stronger consumer voice. We ourselves are strong credible advocates for consumers, but best of all is consumers rallying together. So I’m going to talk to students and others about ways they can be involved and ways their voice can be heard.
Collectively, I think the consumer voice can be incredibly strong. And it’s more necessary than ever today when you see the kind of corporation money that gets pumped into political campaigns and the lobbyist in Washington and at the state level. We don’t have the money, but we have the citizen power.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of being skeptical consumer when you’re talking about questioning food labels or extended warranties?
A: There’s the phrase “caveat emptor” which is basically buyer beware, and the buyer certainly should beware of almost all kinds of transactions that come along. To take a couple of examples, when you get to food labels – and by the way we have a great website at Consumer Reports, greenerchoices.org, take a look at it – many of these labels are just totally misleading.
My favorite one is free-range chicken, or free-range product. For free-range chicken the standard is you can have thousands of chickens in a chicken coop and have a little door to the outside. Open that door for a few minutes a day. A few chickens may wander out and run around in the outdoors, which you kind of think happens with free-range chickens. The rest of them stay in the chicken coop. They are all called free-range chicken. Don’t be beguiled, or misled, by the notion of a free-range chicken.
Q: What is your definition of a smart consumer, and what are you going to tell people tonight about what they can do to better educate themselves?
A: Well a smart consumer is a skeptical consumer and a consumer who tries to get the facts about the products that they might be being offered so they can make informed comparisons, and that’s what Consumer Reports is all about. We test about 3,500 products a year ranging from computers to flat screen TVs, to washing machines, to cars or whatever it may be, and we provided – again, it doesn’t come from the industry, it has no commercial influence on it – we provide that information to consumers to make the choice. Get the information and look at the comparisons.
An interesting phenomenon today, of course, is with Facebook and Google and Amazon and the various sorts of user reviews. People can go there as well, but that is somebody’s kind of subjective opinion which may or may not really reflect the quality, the safety, the reliability of a product.