Thursday 15 March was World Consumer Rights Day: an annual occasion to raise awareness about basic consumer rights, and to advocate for more protection and protest against abuses and social injustices. As part of this, state secretary for budget and consumer protection Alexia Bertrand, in collaboration with VUB, organised a project week to make younger consumers in particular aware of the various consumer protection organisations that exist. Throughout the week, several interactive workshops, lectures, seminars and activities took place on topics as diverse as nutrition and health, financial education, online risks, accessibility and advocacy. There was also a pop-up exhibition showing how purchases can go wrong. This was done with various organisations such as the FPS Economy, Testaankoop, Febelfin, Fevia, Communication Centre, Consumer Ombudsman Service, Unizo and Comeos.

We spoke to Alexia Bertrand and VUB rector Jan Danckaert about the importance of this initiative.

Young people today are growing up as digital citizens, with much of their behaviour as consumers taking place online. Can we assume that they are reasonably aware consumers online, or is there a need for more awareness and protection?

AB: Not everyone, young or old, is a conscious consumer online. Behaviour depends not only on age, but also on the product and price. A few days before the holidays, consumers behave more carelessly when buying gifts that aren’t really expensive. They need something quick and figure that losing €25 wouldn’t be the end of the world. Their attention to signs of fraud weakens somewhat, as they need something quickly. This, of course, is where criminals like to play the game. The digital environment also quickly comes into play. We might examine a webshop more attentively than something touted by an influencer we “know” and “trust” as a friend.

JD: In a complex society that is subject to far-reaching digitalisation, awareness-raising remains necessary, even for young people. Scammers are often just a click away and they are always finding new ways to trick people. Even young people for whom online purchases are part of their daily lives too often fall into the trap of scammers. The media recently reported that the Economic Inspectorate received almost 3,500 reports from victims of fraud through online sales platforms last year. This amounts to €2.7 million in damages. These figures prove how important awareness is.

Online consumption is something permanent and will become available in many more forms in the future. I think the rise of artificial intelligence is something to keep a close eye on. With AI algorithms, companies will be able to respond to or steer customer behaviour. And this will be done in a way where the customer still barely realises they are interacting with an algorithm and not a person. We can’t stop the AI evolution, but it shows once again how important sensitisation is, alongside of course a legal protection framework for the consumer when things do go wrong.  

Have you ever been mis-sold something as a consumer?

AB: Like everyone else, I get lots of emails in my spam folder trying to extort money or data from me or trying to sell me something I don’t need. Many of these emails are amateurishly drafted and are blocked in my spam folder. Some, however, are of such good quality that they appear in my inbox. Consequently, I might pay a little less attention and then open those emails to see what the offers are. For instance, there was one time I got a very interesting offer about a package of books at a very low price, with some interesting titles. My attention was piqued and I was almost sucked in. I was already reaching for my credit card and had started typing in my details until suddenly something caught my eye. The offer in the small print told me it was not those books I would be buying, but similar titles and in subscription form, with a monthly fee. I quickly abandoned the purchase. So that was a near miss. On the other hand, sometimes I buy something, online or offline, that can be labelled a mis-sale. But don’t we all do that? For instance, during the sales because of the low price, or we buy something because of good intentions that we then fail to fulfil later? Thinking before you buy is what we need to do, but doing it all the time is a bit trickier.

JD: A serious mis-sell hasn’t happened to me yet, but that probably has to do with the fact that I’m not a very active consumer. Nevertheless, I’ve become much more aware of the dangers of being a consumer in a world where literally everything is for sale. And that’s precisely why I’m very happy with an initiative like Consumer Week. As consumers, we are inundated with choices and platforms that try to persuade us in all sorts of ways to make a purchase. I hope awareness initiatives will ensure that young consumers adopt some principles and rules of thumb to deal with that vast array of choice and become much more alert to the dangers within it. I see that as an important skill that everyone will have to learn in the coming years. I hope that with this initiative we can play a role in that.  


Secretary of State, how does your policy set out to protect younger, older and less mobile consumers?

AB: I don’t distinguish between younger, older and less mobile consumers, because as statistics show, no one is spared from fraud. The biggest fraud complaint appears to be phishing, so extra efforts need to be made to raise awareness and protect consumers on the internet. Whereas younger consumers are often a bit too overconfident with online purchases and don’t always inform themselves sufficiently, older people often have some fear because they don’t feel informed enough. I see it as my job as secretary of state for consumer protection to ensure that every consumer, regardless of age, gender, disability, etc, can easily find information on purchase procedures, guarantees, how to file complaints or get repairs. Consumers should be aware of their rights and options when buying products and services, not when it’s too late. Hence my campaign BE.COCO. To protect less mobile consumers, I am working with partners like Comeos, Inter and CAWaB.


Can you briefly explain what BE.COCO stands for?

AB: For me, BE.COCO stands for “BE a COnscious COnsumer”. I see my job not as the promoter of unbridled consumption, but rather as the defender of the conscious consumer who thinks when buying goods and services. What is a sustainable purchase? Is a cheap buy always a good buy? Why are there sometimes big price differences for products or services that seem similar at first glance? Are products from outside the European Union as safe as those from inside the EU? Can cheap toys be dangerous for my children? Is cheap food as safe for my health? Can’t medicines be downright dangerous if I buy them online from outside the EU? There are many questions that I hope will be answered by our various experts and partner organisations during Consumer Week here at VUB.


At VUB, we’re happy to open our doors to valuable initiatives such as Consumer Week. Jan, as rector, can you briefly explain the importance of this collaboration for us as a university?

JD: When the request came from the state secretary to organise Consumer Week on our Etterbeek campus, we immediately agreed. After all, this fits perfectly with our identity as an urban engaged university. As a university, we have a social mission to contribute to a society in which consumers receive optimal protection. That’s a mission that should translate into close cooperation between academics, policymakers and all stakeholders. In recent months, we have seen how energy contracts, for example, have given many people sleepless nights. If we can use scientific insights to contribute to regulations that better arm consumers against all kinds of opaque business practices, I’ll be happy that we can help make a difference for those people.

As an urban engaged university, how do we promote more critical awareness around consumption among our community of students, researchers and staff? What research has already been done?

JD: The fact that we make space for initiatives like Consumer Week at our university is because we’re convinced that such initiatives add value to our community. However, consuming critically means being aware not only of the dangers of online purchases but also of the ecological impact of what you consume. We try to make this clear to our community in many ways. A very concrete example is our restaurant, which consistently uses local ingredients, seasonal vegetables, products from fair agriculture and sustainably certified fish. By introducing this to our community, we hope that our students and staff will become more critical in their own purchasing behaviour and choose sustainable products.

As far as research is concerned, I would like to highlight the activities of Prof Malaika Brengman. Some of her work focuses specifically on consumer behaviour. For instance, it examines how consumers are often subconsciously influenced by marketing stimuli such as smells, colours or promotions in shops, how this affects their purchasing behaviour and how they can guard against it – and thus save money. Research has also been conducted on problematic consumption behaviour such as social media addiction or shopping addiction, and research is ongoing on data literacy, financial literacy and the digital divide, as well as consumer attitudes towards new technologies such as robots and AI. As part of group projects for the consumer behaviour subject she teaches, her students regularly carry out studies related to interest in and promotion of more sustainable consumer behaviour. Examples include packaging-free shopping, the protein shift, circular business models and second-hand purchases and sales, as well as greenwashing, i.e. presenting yourself as a company to be more sustainable than you actually are.