Dude, nobody told me I was a nanotechnology consumer!

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Consumer products containing, or claiming to contain, nanomaterials are popping up left and right. It's great that we now have better golf balls, antibacterial socks, clear sunscreen and scratch-free Mercedes limousines. Thanks to some marketing geniuses, we also now have nanosilver foam condoms, nanoseal facial creams and nanotea (see: "The wacky world of nanotechnology consumer products"). When browsing through nanotechnology product directories, it becomes clear very quickly that – apart from the advanced semiconductor structures increasingly found in computers and consumer electronics – today’s "nanotechnology" products are quite “primitive” and a far cry from promises of revolutionary products and applications in nanoelectronics and nanomedicine. Not quite the stuff yet that will cure cancer and save the world. Although a lot of exciting and pioneering work is done in laboratories around the world, it will be several years before this groundbreaking work will be commercialized.
Most products today are defined as “nanotechnology product” because they contain nanoparticles in some form or other. For instance, many antimicrobial coatings contain silver in nanoscale form; food products and cosmetics contain nanoparticles; drug formulations are made with nanoscale ingredients; and some products are partially made with composite materials containing nanomaterials (e.g. carbon nanotubes or carbon nanofibers) to mechanically strengthen the material (see part 7 – 'commercial applications' of our "Ten things you should know about nanotechnology" series).
Two researchers from the Norwegian National Institute for Consumer Research (SIFO), Harald Throne-Holst and Pål Strandbakken, argue that consumer rights in the nanotechnology age are not self-evident but rather have to be strengthened, partly redefined and certainly revived in order to empower and protect consumers.
"Consumer reactions and reflections on nanoenabled marketed products should be of interest beyond academia" Throne-Holst tells Nanowerk: "If one or more of these products fail spectacularly or induce serious health and/or environmental damage, this might severely impact on consumers’ trust and support—and hence on the further development of these promising technologies. Financial and political support may dry up if consumers grow wary of products produced with nanotechnologies. As the focus of our study is on marketable products, we considered it relevant to examine the consumer rights in this context: What about the status of consumer rights on such emerging markets where investments are high and the hopes for the future are soaring?"
Writing in the November 4, 2009 online issue of Journal of Consumer Policy ("'Nobody Told Me I was a Nano-Consumer:' How Nanotechnologies Might Challenge the Notion of Consumer Rights "), the two Norwegian researchers report on a Norwegian study with data derived from focus groups, a content analysis of advertisements, packaging and labels for cosmetics as well as on a Norwegian consumer survey.
The conceptual starting point of Throne-Holst's and Strandbakken's analysis is the famous set of four basic consumer rights formulated by John F. Kennedy in 1962: the right to safety; the right to be informed; the right to choose and the right to be heard.
"While an analysis of the legal status of these so-called rights should be left to scholars in consumer law, the basic idea of the concept is that these are principles that consumers might refer to rights and that consumers can claim if they are violated," says Throne-Holst. "Even though the rights are not often explicitly stated, they do form the backdrop for most of EU consumer protection policy. Our starting hypothesis is that these four consumer rights, although revolutionary and necessary at the time they were introduced, can be considered almost self-evident and non-disputed in today’s Western world. As such we do not expect them to be seriously jeopardized on most consumer markets, even when products resulting from a new set of technologies are introduced. As most consumers do, we assume that the four rights are widely and generally respected."
Based on an empirical study of Norwegian consumers, the objective of the two SIFO researchers was to assess each of these rights as regards markets of nano-enabled products and to evaluate consumers' reflexivity with regard to nanotechnologies. In doing so they covered questions such as: What is the status of the respective consumer right among groups of ordinary citizen-consumers? How are issues that are connected to these rights articulated in public discourse? How are they understood, and how are they brought into the nano discourse?
"Our focus has not been not on individual consumer complaints but on the organized consumer interests’ right to influence policy as political actor in a governance model" says Throne-Holst. "Organization of consumer power is clearly relevant in consumer policy on nanotechnology products."
Based on a focus group study and a representative Norwegian consumer survey, Throne-Holst and Strandbakken reached the following conclusions:
With regard to the right to safety, they maintain that the regulatory framework in general, and REACH in particular, do not cover nanotechnologies sufficiently. Moreover, the different national, regional and global initiatives appear to be rather fragmented and not well coordinated. The Working Party on Nanotechnology within the OECD should increase its efforts to coordinate and spur these efforts by combining forces and making markets more transparent.
With regard to the right to be informed, there is much room for better ways of informing and educating consumers. The participants in the focus groups worried about the lack of information available to them. Governments and societal actors should encourage a societal debate over issues related to the use of nanotechnologies in products. Market transparency and continuous dialogue with industry and retailers on the supply side as well as with consumer organizations on the demand side should be promoted. Mandatory labeling requirements are another option.
The latter will also support the right to choose. The focus group participants wanted to have a choice in the market between nano-enabled products and high quality non-nano alternatives. Manufacturers should provide meaningful product information on the products and/or at the point of sale about whether product properties are derived from nanoparticles. For instance, it is not helpful if textiles are labeled to have an “antibacterial agent;” rather, the respective nanoparticle should be mentioned.
Finally, the right to be heard has to be ensured via appropriate consumer representation – and hence adequate financial support for consumer organizations
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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