Recall Fatigue

Last week, USA Today reported that a rash of product recalls may be creating “fatigue” among consumers, who may be more likely now to overlook or ignore the recalls.

In 2011 alone, 2,363 consumer and food products, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices were recalled by manufacturers. IKEA, for example, took back 169,000 high chairs because the restraint buckle was unreliable. That’s 6.5 recalls per day, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year. The higher incidence is a good thing, say experts, since it results from greater oversight by regulators, better testing procedures, and the use of social media to communicate more quickly and widely.

It’s also a bad thing, of course. Faulty products create risks to health and safety, and, according to a 2009 Rutgers study mentioned by USA Today, only 60% of Americans actually respond to recalls, so the remaining 40%—possibly 125 million people—could be in jeopardy.

Furthermore, recalling products has potentially significant environmental hazards. An increasingly global market requires shipping goods across great distances, expending enormous amounts of fuel, which exacerbates global warming, and putting more pressure on transportation infrastructure. The environmental group Friends of the Earth estimates that just 10 miles of a new four-lane highway creates the equivalent lifetime emissions of nearly 47,000 Hummers. For a recalled product, the environmental impact of its transportation can double, since the good must be shipped back to the manufacturer.

In addition, the resources used to make the faulty products are wasted, since the products didn’t fulfill their intended uses. Some products, such as food, must be thrown out, and others go into storage indefinitely. In Indianapolis, Stericycle, the largest U.S. firm handing recalls, has five warehouses totaling 700,000 square feet—about 12 football fields—where it collects and stores everything from household appliances to sporting equipment to jewelry. “Recalled products come here to die,” Stericycle’s Mike Rozembajgier told USA Today. “If they come to Indianapolis they’re not getting back into the supply chain.”

The drive to make products less expensive increases the likelihood of mistakes that can harm consumers and the environment alike. Factoring in the true costs to public health and the environment, the savings of quicker, cheaper production could be nullified. The best solution is simply to make better products.

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