Bruce Wolk on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act

Bruce WolkThe following is a guest post by Bruce Wolk, author of our upcoming Made Here, Baby!: The Essential Guide to Finding the Best American-Made Products for Your Kids (May 2009). He is concerned about the recent Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and its impact on American manufacturers of children’s products. This Act also affects those of us in the book industry because books themselves fall under it and many libraries concluded that if the Act were to pass in its current form, they would have to close their doors to children under the age of 12 (SLJ).

It is difficult to imagine a less controversial topic than a handmade baby rattle made from selected hardwoods, which is then carefully smoothed by the artisan and is finally finished with beeswax to a golden sheen. After all, American toymakers have been doing this kind of thing for centuries. Yet, it was precisely baby rattles, hand woven baby blankets, hand-sewn clothing, and the like, that became the center of a significant legal debate.

It is no secret that 2007 was a terrible year for children’s products. Well, to be precise, it was especially awful for imported children’s products, and specifically products shipped into our country from China. Though the recalls have been declining since 2007, the year 2008 and even the start of 2009, have shown that problems with Chinese imports persist.

Starting in 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) became overwhelmed with toys, clothing, games and puzzles, and even furniture that were found to have choking hazards, unacceptable levels of lead, harmful chemicals, fire and laceration hazards, and many other problems. Even worse, the CPSC lacked the authority at that time, to do much of anything to put the bite into the multi-nationals to stop their practices. It is important to again state that virtually none of the recalled products were made in the USA, including all of those products handmade by American artisans out of natural materials.

In August 2008, with the blessing of The United States Congress, a new set of laws was passed, which was known as the CPSIA, or the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. The passage of the CPSIA was well-intentioned however it may have been pushed through too hastily, for it painted with such a broad stroke that it could have put virtually every U.S. manufacturer of handmade toys and clothing out of business. At this critical time when America desperately needs to encourage entrepreneurial “behavior” as well as retaining and nurturing as much small business as possible, the CPSIA could have had a catastrophic economic effect.

The small, American handcrafted children’s product organizations manufacturing operations, along with independent toy and children’s product retailers, mobilized late in 2008 to form the Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA).

At the heart of the CPSIA mandate is that there must be third party testing for all toys, on a batch by batch basis. The CPSIA wants testing for lead and phthalates, labeling each toy with a batch number along with date, and many other requirements.

No one, including HTA members, would ever deny the need to test for lead based paints or phthalates (THAL-ates, are chemicals used to make plastic items softer). However, traditional American hand made toy makers, smaller, “at home” clothing makers, American craftspeople making stuffed dolls or animals, and the like, work with materials known by science not to contain lead and certainly not phthalates. The American handcrafters normally work with materials such as wood, cotton, silk, wool, hemp, flax, linen, cardboard, bark, and untreated leather. Indeed, many handmade children’s product craftspeople use reclaimed clothing for fabric sources, or recycled hardwoods for toys and games. In terms of dyeing, finishing or coloring toys, traditional American companies use products such as vegetable and nut oils, FDA approved food coloring, dyes from herbs or flowers, and beeswax.

While testing on a batch basis for a certain chemical, then labeling each batch at first sounds like a reasonable request, it is far more applicable to a multi-national company shipping in container loads of spray-painted metal toys from China than to a one or two person shop making one wooden rocking horse a day. Batch testing is an extremely expensive affair. If a crafter of dolls is hand-dyeing five Raggedy-Ann dolls a week with an FDA approved vegetable color it is hardly equivalent to a Chinese factory making plastic dolls for a multi-national company to the tune of a million dolls per month. In short, there must be some kind of relief for micro-businesses that fall into this manufacturing category.

Recently, the CPSC responded in a positive manner to HTA members asking for a review of the CPSIA regulations. The CPSC is allowing a one year “stay” so that small American manufacturers of traditional handmade children’s toys, clothing, and other items can offer ways in which sensible solutions can emerge so that everyone is satisfied. Congress is beginning to consider a technical amendment that will likely correct any of the unintended consequences of the original CPSIA laws. It is also worth noting that organizations such as the HTA are not against imports per se, nor are they anti-global. Clearly, toy imports of German, Scandinavian, Italian, and French origin, have never been a problem. It has indeed been an interesting period for baby rattles and hopefully, it will be a better year for American manufacturing.
Made Here, Baby!
Bruce H. Wolk (Denver, CO) has developed more than 50 products for the chil­dren’s, natural foods, and pet products industries. He is currently director of marketing for a national commodity board serving the needs of more than 2,000 American companies. He has written for numerous hobby, trade, and general interest publications. He is the author of the upcoming book, Made Here, Baby! and a proud uncle and godfather.

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