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Metric Culprits

The Position of "Consumer Organisations"

Given the opposition to metric among consumers, and the extent to which metric undermines consumers' interests, one might expect consumer bodies to oppose metric labelling. However, this is not the case; consumer organisations either support metric or offer no opposition to it.

The Consumers Association, publishers of Which? magazine, has conducted no research on the effects of metric adoption and has therefore "…not taken a stance on metrication" (letter, 27/3/98). It describes metric as a "political" issue and outside its remit.

The fourteen-member National Consumer Council also has no view on metric, although it does seem favourably inclined to it; when asked for a comment on metric conversion during 1995, a spokesman said, "There is no evidence that Britons cannot cope with these calculations. Every time they cross the Channel, they make the switch" (Electronic Telegraph, 28/8/95).

Linked to the National Consumer Council, and sharing the same address, is the Consumers in Europe Group. This body supports metric usage and in 1988 called for a "rapid transition to full use of the metric system". In 1999, the CEG stated that it "welcomed the changeover" to metric for foods sold loose and its officials have appeared on radio shows promoting the metric system.

The National Federation of Consumer Groups (NfCG) is also pro-metric. Its site on the internet describes the metric system as a "giant leap for mankind" that offers "benefits undreamt of by most Britons". The NfGC argues that metric "gives better accuracy [and is] easier to use" and that, "…sizes can usually be rationalised when changing to metric". The NfGC's metric spokesperson Anne Attlee suggests that metric provides a solution to the question as to whether beer served in a pub should be measured to the brim of a glass or to a line printed on the side of the glass:

"If you take a one pint mug and fill it with a half litre of water, the liquid comes to about one centimetre below the rim. Mark the line. Now, if you fill the mug with beer until the liquid reaches the half litre line, the froth will neatly fill the rest of the pint pot. So, you have the line measure that won't slop beer all over the tables, you have the legal measure in metric which is the way of the future and modern measuring - but you still have the beer in your familiar pint pot. I am perfectly happy for people still to ask for 'a pint' - everyone will know the legal measure is a half-litre. I'm sure some legal wording can be devised to save barkeepers from being hauled off to the Tower for responding to the request for a 'pint' by pouring out a legal half-litre".

We have emphasised the last two sentences, precisely because it is not acceptable for a publican to serve a half litre when asked for a pint (a half-litre is 12% less). To date, neither the NfCG nor CEG has conducted or commissioned a national survey on consumer attitudes to metric packaging, yet each purports to represent consumer interests.

The Limitations of Consumer Groups It is apparent that consumer groups are highly inter-connected and have strong connections to the government. The National Consumer Council, together with its associate Welsh, Scottish and Irish Councils, and the Consumers in Europe Group, are all funded by the DTI, and each (with the exception of the Consumers in Europe Group) has its council members appointed by the DTI's Secretary of State. The NfCG, which represents independent consumer groups, also receives funding from the DTI, and is an affiliate member of the Consumers in Europe Group.

These groups also have ties with local government, particularly the enforcement agencies. The NfCG, for instance, has 36 trading standards departments among its associate members, and the various Consumer Councils have among their members trading standards officers and officials from ITSA (Institute of Trading Standards Administration), the profession body for trading standards officers.

A consequence of this high degree of inter-connectivity is that consumer groups represent a much narrower band of opinion that may be popularly assumed. On the metric problem, the views of consumer groups have become virtually indistinguishable from those of the UK government/EC. An illustration of this overlap is the DTI's appointment to the National Consumer Council of Jim Humble OBE. Mr Humble is not only the Chief Executive of LACORS but also a former director of the Metrication Board set up by the government to promote metric during the 1970s. With such appointments as these, the National Consumer Council can hardly be relied upon to provide any scrutiny or critical questioning of metric policy.

Other overlaps include:

  • The chairwoman of the Scottish Consumer Council was a member of the DTI's Better Regulation Taskforce which rubberstamped compulsory metric regulations.
  • The NfCG's metric spokesperson Anne Attlee is also the chairman of the Metric Sense Campaign, a pro-metric lobby. Consequently, the NfCG and Metric Sense Campaign's views on metric are virtually identical, since the same person is responsible for both.
  • The NfCG has among its associate members supermarkets such as Sainsburys and companies including Heinz Frozen Foods, which downsize packing on metric conversion.

The views of independent consumer groups. In contrast to the above consumer organisations, groups that represent consumers in some other capacity, for example, as retired people or housewives, are opposed to metric conversion. For instance:

British Pensioners and Trade Union Action Association "It is very unfair that mathematical tricks should be used as a means to cheat people out of their food quantities whilst increasing their expenses. As per usual, this is all done with so-called "modernness" and European uniformity in mind. Those that do not agree are accused of being out of touch or resistant to change. Perhaps we should all be a lot more resistant to being embarrassed into agreeing to changes that actually mean a poorer quality of life for ourselves instead of feeling that we want to be considered "up to date" and "modern" - both of which seem to indicate social regression rather than progression. It is time to make a stand and put a stop to these sort of "clever clever" tricks…" 
National Housewives Association "All consumers want value for money but, through metric conversion, weights of products are being reduced and the accompanying cost either remains the same, or is raised on some flimsy pretext…it just masks price rises and confuses the older generation".
National Federation of Retirement Pensions Associations  "A conference resolution in 1998 came out against ALL compulsory metrication. The rule on fresh foods is a particularly oppressive example".
National Council of Women of Great Britain  "…has no policy on the subject. However, I can safely say that as an organisation of, mainly, older women, we deplore it. Fortunately, some retailers, particularly market stalls, give prices for both imperial and metric measures".

Contrast these comments with those of trading standards officers, mainstream consumers associations, supermarkets, producers and the Department of Trade and Industry:

TSNet (a trading standards website) "Reports and surveys from across the UK confirm that the metrication 'D' day [January 1st, 2000] has gone reasonably smoothly - consumer groups report that over 95% of people are happy with the metric system…" 
Wigan Trading Standards "We believe that it will not take long for everyone to get used to [metric]…so long as people remember that a traditional pound is not very different from half a kilo, or 500 grams, they won't go far wrong. It's actually 454 grams. No one can really get ripped off because the price remains the same for both. After all, quite a lot of people nowadays have shopped overseas and got used to the metric system already" (August 1999).
Department of Trade and Industry, Consumer Affairs "Since the early 1970s, the metric system has been adopted in stages…including, in 1974, as the primary system of measurement taught in our schools. Each stage of this process has been achieved without undue confusion or disruption to either the business world or the general public".
Waitrose Supermarket "There are already whole ranges of products which have converted or more recently launched in litres or kilograms and there is no evidence that customers are not fully happy with these" (20/1/98).
National Federation of Consumer Groups [referring to a BWMA survey] "I have taken a look at your survey results and cannot accept them as being significant. Most people now purchase these products in pre-weighed packs. Otherwise, they buy a number of cauliflowers, apples, etc and do not care about the weight. Were you to ask the same thousand people how much of anything they need to prepare a meal, they would be very circumspect. Life has moved on. Most people don't care any more…"
Trebor Bassett (in response to letter regarding downsizing) "…consumer research has shown that the weight of the bag is very low on the consumer's list of priorities; they are more interested in price, value for money and the physical size of the bag" (10/5/00).

These quotes illustrate the extent of the difficulty in getting the relevant bodies to address the metric problem. Waitrose, in common with other supermarkets, interprets the lack of complaints by customers as an indication that there is there is no problem. It does not consider the lack of complaints about metric downsizing as a problem. The NfCG argues, paradoxically, that as most items are pre-packed, consumers do not relate to weight any more, therefore metric is perfectly acceptable.

The view of Trebor Bassett that consumer's do not regard weight as important is nonsensical in view of their subsequent statement that consumers attach importance to price and value. A "price" cannot be assessed without reference to quantity. Similarly, value for money must involve weight as well as price and quality, etc.

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