Blogs & Comment

Soup, safety, and social responsibility

Sometimes product safety is best seen as a question of risks to communities, rather than risks to individuals.

(Photo: Hugo Gonzalez/Flikr)

Every product poses risks. Just how safe does your product have to be, in order for you to market it in good conscience? How unsafe does it have to be in order for you to take it off the market or redesign it?

Case in point: NPR recently ran a story on “Why Burn Doctors Hate Instant Soup.” The basic problem is that some brands of soup sold in styrofoam cups pose a hazard to kids. They’re “tippy,” and have a tendency to spill when kids grab them. And when boiling-hot water and noodles spill on a kid, serious burns can result.

What are we to say, ethically, about a risky product like this?

Part of the problem here is that risk is not an objectively-measurable quality. Sure, you can count the number of burns in a relatively objective manner. But you can’t objectively determine which burns were caused by bad design and which were caused by either unreasonable parental behaviour or pure accident. And while you can measure the angle at which various brands of soup tip, you cannot measure what degree of tippiness is reasonable.

But still. It’s kids, here. Kids getting seriously burned. And the NPR story notes that there’s a relatively simple solution: making the soup containers low and wide, rather than tall and narrow, considerably reduces the risk of tipping. But are companies morally obligated to redesign their soup packages?

It’s a good example of a question best posed in terms of corporate social responsibility, rather than in terms of obligations to particular consumers. Consider the more individualistic alternative: is Nissin Foods obligated to reduce the risks of the soup it sells to me? To the average consumer? To the average parent? To the super-conscientious parent? To the negligent parent? After all, tippy containers might be perfectly reasonable as a product to sell to the super-conscientious parent, and entirely unreasonable as a product to sell to the negligent parent.

But big companies don’t design their products for individuals; they design and sell them to a society of consumers. That effectively washes out the kinds of questions about individual contributory negligence that would be entirely appropriate in the context of an individual’s claim that she has been hurt by a product.

From a social point of view, a worst-in-class product that results in a pattern of harm to consumers seems to imply a clear obligation on the part of the manufacturer: redesign the product, or at very least take a long hard look at the tradeoffs involved between the cost of manufacturing and the risks of consumption.