Between a global pandemic, war in Europe and a cost of living crisis, it can seem a long time since the focus of our national conversation was about the implications of Brexit.
In the background of these unsettling current events, government officials continue to work on free trade agreements with other countries, which will have far-reaching implications for how our businesses trade, the future of the environment, the safety of the products in our homes and much else besides.
To get a sense of consumers’ priorities, in 2020 Which? undertook the National Trade Conversation. One thing became abundantly clear: consumers wanted trade deals to protect the environment. This was one of the four priorities participants identified for UK trade policy.
Consumers understood that global trade could encourage people to buy more products – particularly if they were sold at a lower price. Yet they also believed that supporting local production was important to help reduce the environmental impact.
Indeed, that commitment to and awareness of environmental protections did not waver when we conducted more research on attitudes regarding trade deals a year later. One of the most striking findings from this was the proportion of people who felt that maintaining environmental protection was even more of a priority compared to their view a year ago. Given the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, both at home and abroad, that is unsurprising.
Including principles of sustainability in trade deals went from a ‘nice to have’ to being essential. Participants considered recent trade texts, including the deal that has now been concluded between the UK and Japan, but these were deemed not ambitious enough in protecting the environment.
To be successful in forging new trading relationships, the government must ensure that it has the support and trust of its public, who will measure the success of trade policy decisions by how they impact their everyday lives, rather than by exports and other trade statistics.
One key way it could do this is by publishing a trade strategy, as the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have encouraged the government to do. This would outline, in detail that anyone could understand, what these agreements will mean for consumers. Our research found that two thirds of consumers still feel left in the dark about what these decisions will mean for them. A trade strategy would engage with the public on issues they are most concerned about, and be transparent about the trade offs.
Another way to show consumers that the government is taking their considerations into account would be to include a chapter on consumers in agreements, as it has done with the free trade deal with New Zealand – a world first. Which? research found that eight in 10 people said there should be a section within trade deals supporting consumer interests.
Underpinning the focus on sustainability must be strong consumer protections, which can include promoting cross-border consumer rights to ensure customers in the UK purchasing products from the partner countries can do so with confidence.
Provisions throughout trade deals, including those relating to technical barriers to trade and to market access provisions must also be aligned with UK efforts to reach net zero. This includes ensuring that imports, such as food imports, do not undermine our efforts to transition to a more sustainable system – and enable all consumers, whatever their income, to have the baseline protections they expect.
The UK-Australia free trade agreement has for example raised concerns as it will allow imported agricultural products produced to lower environmental standards, reinforcing the importance of the UK establishing core standards that it will apply to all imports and across all future trade deals.
On an international stage, the government can build on its leadership role at COP26 and be a global leader in promoting trade that supports its climate and wider ambitions. That opportunity must be seized.
The rewards of empowering and delivering the right protections for consumers through trade deals should not be underestimated. Securing public support is vital for the success of UK trade, and demonstrating how trade deals will deliver for consumers is a key part of that.
Consumers tell us that they want to live cleaner, greener lives, and the government has committed to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Trade has a key role to play here, but so does domestic policy – consumers also tell us that they feel like they are not receiving enough practical and actionable information from government and businesses to support them to become more eco-friendly.
The decisions ministers make now both at home and abroad will have far-reaching consequences for consumers, businesses and our environment for many years to come. Short-sightedness here will hurt us all in the long-term.
Sue Davies is Head of Consumer Rights and Food Policy at Which?