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
not taken a stance on metrication" (letter, 27/3/98). It
describes metric as a "political" issue and outside its remit.
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
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.
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.
|British Pensioners and Trade Union Action
||"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
|| "A conference resolution in 1998 came out against ALL
compulsory metrication. The rule on fresh foods is a particularly oppressive
|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
|Wigan Trading Standards
||"We believe that it will not take long for everyone to get used
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
|Department of Trade and Industry, Consumer
||"Since the early 1970s, the metric system has been adopted in
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
||"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"
|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
|Trebor Bassett (in response to letter regarding
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
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.