November 22, 2023 / Giselle Vincett

To Understand Change in Product Stewardship, Look to Social Science

In conversations related to my work as the vice president of the Yordas Group for North America, I’m always struck that many people express surprise about the pace of regulatory change. To me, the rapid change we are experiencing is self-evident, given the pace of societal change. But then, my background is in social research.

One informative and relatively easy way to track social change and the current values and concerns of society is to look at large-scale surveys. In the context of product stewardship and regulatory change, surveys indicate that attitudes are shifting significantly in three areas: trust, and the lack of it; risk, especially to the environment; and self-agency—that is, perceptions of who has the power to affect change.


Particularly in the U.S., consumers report declining trust in the federal government and each other. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pew Research Center reported that only 20% of respondents trusted the federal government always or most of the time. When prompted, respondents said that they no longer viewed federal institutions as a force for good or change. Similarly, the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer reported that 55% of Americans viewed the “government” (the survey didn’t distinguish between federal or state) as a source of misleading or false information. This lack of trust affects all government institutions, including regulatory agencies.

It is interesting, however, that this doesn’t stop Americans from believing that governments should pass more regulations to protect the environment. For example, the Yale Climate Opinion Maps of 2021 showed that 72% of Americans believed that governments should regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

As consumers lose trust in regulators, they take on the responsibilities to do their own due diligence and to lobby industry to change. Paradoxically, this places pressure on regulators to increase and speed up regulatory change.

Environmental Risk

A changing tolerance for risk is connected to a lack of trust. People in general are now far less tolerant of environmental risk than they were previously. Several large-scale surveys have indicated that global consumers are united in their concern for environmental issues. For example, the 2021 Glocalities and Global Citizen Survey, which questioned almost 250,000 respondents in 20 countries over several years, found that 78% of consumers were concerned about dangers to the environment and climate. The 2016 European Social Survey found that a majority of Europeans believed that the world’s climate was “probably” or “definitely” changing—in most countries, more than 90% of respondents reported this. U.S. consumers are catching up: in 2021, 72% of Americans believed that global warming was occurring, and a clear majority were worried about it, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps.

Furthermore, concern about climate change is increasing with time. The 2021 Glocalities and Global Citizen Survey found that concern about damage to the planet caused by humans had increased by seven percentage points since 2014. In 2020, the Pew Research Center’s International Science Survey found that, in many countries, the number of respondents who agreed that climate change represented a very serious problem had increased by 20 percentage points or more when compared to 2015.

Worries about climate change run parallel to worries about harmful chemicals: a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2022 found that 74% of more than 800 U.S. women who were surveyed strongly agreed that chemicals in the environment were dangerous. For consumers, this shifting risk tolerance can engender a hazard-based response to chemical use. Risk communicators and researchers have long referred to the public’s increasing perception of the risks posed by chemicals in their environment as “intuitive toxicology” (see this 1994 article in Toxicologic Pathology).

Perceptions of risk tend to lessen when levels of trust are high, especially when people feel they have access to good, reliable, and transparent information. People are also more likely to accept some risk when they perceive that benefits may result.

Growth of Self-Agency

The many social movements that have taken root in the U.S. over the past few years, from Black Lives Matter to Me Too, indicate that the public is shifting its perception of who has agency, or the ability to enact change. Lack of trust in institutions and reduced tolerance for environmental risk leads individuals to feel that they can and must affect change themselves rather than waiting for others to lead and that they must do their own due diligence regarding risk. This is a social shift away from a mindset in which individuals rely on governments or regulators to keep them safe or feel resigned to corporations polluting their communities to one in which they feel engaged, educated, and empowered.

It’s also important for people in industry to be aware that self-agency is often accompanied by individuals taking a precautionary approach to chemical use and high expectations for businesses and industries to do the right thing. Interestingly, the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found that more Americans have trust in businesses than in their governments. This trust places an onus on business to take steps to earn it. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer also showed that consumers expected business to “defend facts and expose questionable science” and to work with governments, regardless of political party, to develop policies and standards on issues such as climate change.

Consumers have more access to information than ever—a shift that may be referred to as the democratization of information. With access to good information and a sense of self-agency, consumers can do their own research about brands and companies. The 2023 Business of Sustainability Index reported that 68% of respondents were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products and 79% wanted clearer, easier ways to identify companies with strong environmental performance. An Edelman Trust Barometer special report found that, globally, consumers were five times more likely to buy from brands addressing climate change and that these actions helped build trust with them.

Regulators don’t live in a vacuum. They are influenced by government policy, the actions of other governments in other regions, media reports, business necessity, scientific research, lawsuits, and especially public attitudes. By taking all of these factors into account, we can predict that regulators will increasingly take precautionary, hazard-based approaches and will put greater emphasis on their duty of care to humans and the environment. This is likely to translate into bans and restrictions on substances of concern, changes in hazard classes, and grouping of similar substances—actions that we are already seeing materialize.

Image: Getty / Tanankorn Pilong

Giselle Vincett

Giselle Vincett, PhD, is the vice president of Yordas Group for North America.


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