In most countries, laws have been passed to protect consumers against dangerous or faulty workmanship, deceitful sales practices, and misleading advertising. In the United States, the governmental agencies responsible for enforcing these regulations are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the UK, the Office of Fair Trading has a primary role, while in Canada several departments participate in consumer protection. A consumer advocate is a person or group that seeks to educate consumers, protect their safety, and expose unfair practices.
The primary focus of some consumer advocate groups is education. Organizations such as the American Association for Retired People (AARP) provide information, insurance packages and other services to middle age and senior citizens. Other groups focus on specific issues such as health care and provide research-based information on food, medicines, healthy lifestyles and environmental factors. Some even publish statistical data regarding hospitals and medical providers to assist citizens in making informed decisions.
One of the most widely known business related consumer advocate organizations in the US is the Better Business Bureau (BBB). This is a member-driven organization with local chapters throughout the country. Members are offered educational materials and are expected to comply with fair business practices. Complaints against a member are investigated, and if founded, the member is expected to remedy the situation or face expulsion. Consumers are encouraged to check a business’s standing with the BBB prior to entering into contracts with them.
Consumer advocate organizations that champion causes for underserved communities offer both education and advocacy. Education includes helping citizens know what public assistancethey may be qualified to receive, teaching job search skills, and providing financial counseling. Advocates for the handicapped monitor schools and businesses to make certain they comply with regulations assuring access to education, the work place and public areas. These groups also monitor businesses and financial institutions to make certain fair and nondiscriminatory practices are being observed.
Another area which has attracted several consumer advocate organizations is manufacturing. Some organizations monitor compliance with consumer product safety standards, such as the use of non-toxic paint and flame retardant materials in children’s toys and clothing. If a product is found to be defective, the organization informs the supplier as well as the public and governmental agencies to ensure recall requirements are met. Other advocacy groups monitor farming, food processing, automobile safety, or drug manufacturing.
Job opportunities for a consumer advocate may be found in both the public and private sector. Many local and regional governments have consumer affairs offices which investigate complaints of unfair practices. Private corporations employ advocates to interface with customers and determine if the business is meeting their needs or losing them to competition. Hospitals employ consumer advocates, referred to as patient representatives, to interface with patients and family members and make certain that proper care is being administered and any concerns addressed. Jobs may also be found at some of the nonprofit advocacy groups.
People from a variety of backgrounds become consumer advocates, and the education requirements vary widely. Insurance and health care facilities may require someone with a medical background. A number of groups want attorneys or people trained in public policy who can proceed with litigation or lobby the government for legislation support of their causes. Volunteering with an advocacy group can help a person gain valuable experience and may help secure employment in that field.