Research Handbooks on the WTO series
Edited by Tracey Epps and Michael J. Trebilcock
Chapter 13: Consumer information, consumer preferences and product labels under the TBT Agreement
The WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (‘TBT Agreement’) has a significant impact on the provision of information to consumers on product labels in WTO Members. Earlier chapters in this handbook have explored the relevance of domestic and international standards under the TBT Agreement, as well as the implications of regulatory distinctions based on product-related and non-product-related process and production methods (‘PPMs’). Building on those earlier explorations, in this chapter we discuss the relationship between consumer information, consumer preferences and product labelling requirements imposed by WTO Members. As governments become increasingly vigilant about environmental and health concerns, they rely more frequently on product labels to inform consumers of ‘friendly’ or ‘unfriendly’ product characteristics and modes of production. The use of product labels as vehicles for the provision of information is likely to continue to grow as scientific evidence accumulates and the knowledge of individuals and policy-makers becomes more and more nuanced and expert. Product labels have the potential not only to respond to consumer demands but also to shape consumers’ habits and expectations and, in turn, patterns and levels of consumption and international trade. The central challenge for WTO law in regulating product labelling requirements, then, is balancing, on the one hand, Members’ sovereign right to ensure that consumers receive adequate and appropriate information about the products they are purchasing with, on the other hand, the potential for product labels and labelling requirements to discriminate against or between imported products or otherwise to restrict trade.
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