Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Overcoming Obstacles and Fighting for Change

Photo by UrbanTurn

By now, many of you know that Mattel has been granted an exemption from third party testing. The CPSIA law was created because of Mattel, and they've managed to skirt it, while crafters and micro businesses making inherently lead free products pay dearly (or go out of business) to remain "legal."This is frustrating to say the least, and may have you feeling like there's nowhere to turn.

Let's all remain hopeful and keep working together to fix CPSIA. Our voices are making a huge difference. Read my CPSIA article on Etsy's blog and learn about some of the latest news on this complicated law.

One of the best things you can do to help effect change to the CPSIA is join the Handmade Toy Alliance. Let's keep fighting together for change. -Cecilia

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Dark(er) Side of the CPSIA

We have been complaining for almost a year about the excessive and unnecessary costs imposed on small businesses by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). That's a bad enough problem, but we also believe that the CPSIA will undermine children's product safety overall if it isn't changed quickly to provide regulatory flexibility based on risk analysis.

Since the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) inception in the 1970's, it has regulated safety by performing risk analysis to identify which products require the closest attention and oversight. This approach enabled the CPSC to target their limited resources to where they would do the most good.

The CPSIA changed all that. By mandating that every children's product must be tested before sale, the CPSC's focus has changed from identifying and eliminating risk to policing compliance with testing and labeling requirements.

Michael Brown, a partner in the law firm of Brown & Gidding, wrote in the ADK Project Resource Group's new Managing Product Recalls Guide about the CPSC's new mission under the CPSIA:

"The CPSIA has added several new tasks [to the CPSC], many of which most charitably can be described as marginal in the overall pursuit of product safety that will divert staff and financial resources from more important safety issues. For example, if the agency were to attempt to rigorously enforce the new lead restrictions in children’s products that the CPSIA imposes, that effort itself could consume most of the agency’s resources even though, by and large, the restrictions contribute little to the safety of children."
This is an argument we have been making for a long while. As parents and consumers, we are very concerned that the CPSIA is actually detracting from the CPSC's ability to prevent harm. When we created our list of improvements we'd like to see in the CPSIA and our Seeds of Change Document, our intent was to make the law workable both for small manufacturers and the CPSC. Without these changes, we fear that a whole new wave of unintended consequences will emerge in the form of unsafe products that may have been duly tested but were nonetheless hazardous due to a hitherto unknown design issues or an unanticipated pattern of use and abuse. The CPSC was once in a position to respond to these types of issues, but not under the CPSIA.

A perfect example is the bath seat, which posed a hazard when babies were left unattended, a danger that had nothing to do with how well designed or tested the seat was. The pre-CPSIA CPSC was able to recognize this hazard and mount a public education campaign to combat it.

Furthermore, the CPSIA provides a disincentive for manufacturers to improve the safety of their products. Toy manufacturer and CPSIA activist Rick Woldenberg has described how the CPSIA will work against improving safety by requiring a new round of tests each time a product is changed:
"It is another irony of this rule that by formalizing the requirement to retest when you change components, you actually provide a negative incentive to become more efficient or more safe. There is no incentive to change factories if you save less than the new testing costs...In addition, the law punishes companies for improving their products by imposing a testing penalty on any change. Thus, your incentive to change a product to, for example, make it better or safer is greatly reduced - you will pay (literally) for your good deed."
This is a critical concern. The children's product industry has always been rich with innovation and the best manufacturers are constantly improving their products as they learn from consumers what works and what doesn't. When a federal law actually interferes with this process, that law needs to be changed.

Of course, a lot of innovation comes not from larger established companies, but from tiny businesses like our members who figure out how to make a better mousetrap. To destroy folks like us because of the sins of Mattel doesn't improve safety, it just stifles creativity and innovation.

Monday, September 21, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the CPSIA

Like Dr. Strangelove's Mandrake, we too are under fire because of an over-reaction to impurities in common household substances. Most days, the looks on our faces are a lot like Mandrake's as we learn more and more about the many provisions of the CPSIA.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Storyblox Toys Closes Shop due to CPSIA

Storyblox Toys, makers of artfully painted wooden blocks made in the USA, has closed indefinitely. Here's what they wrote:

Last year, as you know, there were a string of toy recalls involving massive numbers of toys, some from major manufacturers, which had made it into our children’s hands containing toxic lead paint. This sent consumers running in droves for small manufacturers, like us, for the Christmas season last year, and it also spurred Washington into passing, very quickly, a very flawed piece of legislation known as the CPSIA.

If you haven’t heard about the CPSIA, or don’t understand what all the fuss has been about, you can read more about the legislation here: http://www.whatisthecpsia.com/ and more detailed and recent news here: http://learningresourcesinc.blogspot.com/.

The CPSIA was written so its different statutes took effect on a schedule. At this time, the bill has come into full effect, but the CPSC – the body that’s in charge of enforcing the law – still has a “Stay of Enforcement” in place for parts of the bill, which expires at the end of this year.

Until recently, I had high hopes that this law would be amended. There have been numerous amendment attempts from various members of congress, some with a decent amount of support, but as far as I know all attempts have been killed by special committee before they even got to a vote. Now that the bill is in full effect, and we’re rapidly approaching the end of the stay of enforcement, I have been forced into making a decision I did not want to have to make.

As of today (September 17,2009), I am announcing, with deep regret, the indefinite closing of StoryBlox™.

Our toys are, and always were, safe. Every paint we’ve used is certified non-toxic and lead-free. We have documentation certifying every finish and glue that we use, as well. Unfortunately, none of this matters. The CPSIA legislation will require that we get a separate, destructive, 3rd party test on every single end-product toy we sell – regardless of the components, regardless of the cost. For a company that runs small productions, the costs of testing are so high that there is no way to cover them, let alone make any profit selling the products. For a company like ours, which does most of its business in custom, one-of-a-kind toys, the testing process would destroy each product before it could get to the customer that ordered it.

We do not mass produce our products, for that our customers love us, and for that congress has made it impossible for us to continue selling our toys without breaking the law. Some small businesses are taking the “just keep selling things until they catch you” approach, but I am not comfortable with that attitude. Regardless of my personal feelings towards this law, it is still law. Even if I could get my mind around the idea of ignoring a law because I disagree with it, the fines in place for ignoring the impossible requirements of this law are astronomical.

The way the law reads right now, a company selling a perfectly safe toy – which complies with all lead, phthalates, small parts and flammability requirements – that has not labeled the toy correctly, or cannot provide a proper 3rd party testing certificate for that toy, can still be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, at the whim of the CPSC. As a small business without the resources of a major corporation, we cannot afford the testing, or the risk of fines for not testing. As a disabled woman living on a meager income, I certainly cannot take this risk.

I had originally planned to keep our business open, selling only our promotional products, and possibly some or all of our keepsakes (which are not aimed at children), while waiting on the law to be amended. After much deliberation, however, I have decided that I am not comfortable doing this. StoryBlox™ was founded on educational blocks; education has always been our main focus, and a StoryBlox™ without educational toys is just not the same company. I would rather shut down for now, and wait on the necessary changes, than compromise because of a bad law.

I hope that this is not the end for us. Hopefully, in a year or two, common sense will win out, and the law will be amended so that it actually protects our children, while encouraging, rather than destroying, small businesses like ours that have been producing safe products from the get-go. If and when that happens, hopefully I will be in a place where I can re-open the business.

I sincerely apologize to our loyal customers, who were looking forward to purchasing our toys this Christmas season and beyond. I would like to encourage all of you to talk to your representatives and let them know how this is affecting you as a consumer.

Thank you for your years of support.

Tammy Bowles
StoryBlox™ Creator
September 17, 2009

An HTA Pop Quiz

See if you can identify either of these two tiny companies, both of whom make children's products:

Three friends launch their company out of a garage in Southern California. Their first products are picture frames, but they developed a side business in dollhouse furniture made from picture frame scraps...


Three partners in New York make toys out of heavy steel parts and ponderosa pine, which resists splintering and held up well to heavy use. The details and charm are added with colorful labels based on characters from one of the partner's children's books. They took 16 of their wooden toys to the American International Toy Fair in New York City and they quickly become a success...

Wait--don't bother searching through our list of over 300 business members, even though these descriptions might describe many of our member businesses who make their children's products in their garages or basement.

Actually, the first paragraph describes Mattel when it began in 1945.

The second paragraph describes the early years of Fisher-Price (now wholly owned by Mattel) in the 1930s.

What would have happened to Mattel or Fisher-Price if the CPSIA had been in effect during their early years? Certainly the early Mattel might have redoubled their focus on unregulated picture frames rather than invest in testing their tiny batches of dollhouse furniture. And Fisher-Price would likely have reconsidered their business plans if they knew that every buyer at Toy Fair would need to see their certificate of compliance.

This is one of the most compelling reasons to nurture and support American small businesses. We are the future of the American economy. Small businesses bring innovation and an opportunity for growth that big business can't match. And, although Mattel and Fisher Price lost their moral compass in the many decades since their humble beginnings, their failures had been providing opportunities for small manufacturers as parents sought out toys made with integrity. But the CPSIA took all that away and left Mattel smelling like roses.

If anything, Congress needs to learn the lesson that harming small business without cause is like throwing away the future.

HTA Blog Upgrade

But wait, there's more. For more HTA blog posts, visit http://sites.google.com/site/handmadetoyalliance/news---updates.

We also blog at Change.org.