A Case Study in Risk Perception

A product might be on the market for years when, suddenly, public outcry causes it to be taken off the shelves. When consumer reaction causes a crisis, companies don’t have time to focus on the underlying factors that created it. Once the storm blows over, there’s rarely an opportunity for product stewards to step back and reflect.

At Stewardship 2015, attendees finally had that opportunity during Retail Regulation in 20:20 Hindsight, a session led by Kate Sellers, vice president at ARCADIS.

Sellers used the removal of microbeads from beauty products as a case study, with the intention of talking about consumer perception. “I’m not here to pick on the microbeads themselves,” she said. Rather, she described the session as “a chance for us to examine the factors that shape risk perception and risk management in a neutral setting.”

Sellers reviewed the scientific literature around microbeads, which were first patented in 1972. The first published concerns about the environmental effects of microbeads were in 1991, but public interest was low until 2011. In other words, there were about forty years between the patent and concerns by activists. In hindsight, the possibility of consumer concern existed, but back then, the regulatory environment was different.

Sellers also pointed out that synthetic fibers are similar in characteristics to microbeads, in that they’re persistent in the environment. She cited a 2011 study that claimed washing fleece produced loose fibers that could end up in the water stream. Yet there has been no public pressure to remove fleece from the market. Why the difference between clothing fibers and personal care products, she asked.

“When we are making a risk management decision or responding to outcries, we have to think about that public perception part of it,” Sellers said. She listed some factors that influence public sentiment, including the following:

  • Whether the risk is seen as voluntary by consumers or forced on them
  • Whether the risk is imminent or delayed into the future
  • Whether the risk is natural or manmade
  • Whether the risk is familiar to consumers or not
  • Whether the risk can be eliminated or merely reduced

Even as product stewards remember these factors, there is another lesson to be learned, said Sellers. Trying to predict how people will react to anyone issue is difficult.


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