If You Sell Promotional Products, Learn to Read a Test Report

I know, I know. Boring technical jargon. It’s all true.

But unless you have someone else in your company to take care of this for you, you can’t afford not to know how to read a test report.

There’s an easy way and a hard way. I’ll show you the easy way.  The hard way is to find out that the product you thought was compliant isn’t compliant and that the official looking test report you’ve got in your file is out of date, not relevant to your specific product or doesn’t include all the tests you need.

I know. I learned the hard way.

Back in 2007, when the testing mania began and before we started ordering our own tests, we asked all of our factories to send us test reports for the products in our line. This was a year before CPSIA, before phthalate limits, before lead-in-substrate limits, and before mandatory ASTM F963. The only federal lead restriction was the 600 ppm limit for lead in paint or surface coating – the one that tripped up Mattel with their Barbie Doll recalls.

We received plenty of official looking reports and most of them from well-known testing labs. They referred to tests and codes like EN71, RoHS and 16 CFR 1303. Some included photographs, some did not. We dutifully filed them away and provided them on request to any distributor who asked – the ones doing business with corporations who have really knowledgable compliance people. And that’s when the education began – when those people saw the holes in some of the reports we provided.

“This report is dated 2005. Do you have a current one?”  “The product in this report is a tumbler but it doesn’t look anything like one than we’re buying.”  “EN71 is for Europe. Do you have a test report for the US standard ASTM F963?”

You get the idea. Almost none of the reports were for the actual products in our line. Most were outdated and covered mostly European standards.

Bullet point one: If the test isn’t for the exact product you’re purchasing, it doesn’t mean anything. Never mind that the factory says it’s made of the same material. If you’re purchasing Prime’s LT-3290 then the test report needs to say LT-3290. And it should have a picture so you know for sure that the test is for the same product you’re ordering.

Bullet point two:  The test should be current. The date is critical because the standards have changed. It doesn’t help you to have a lead test dated April 2011 if the bag you’re buying was manufactured in September. The lead standard in April was 300 ppm. After August 14 it changed to 100 ppm.

Speaking of ppm, that’s just a way of expressing a very dilute concentration of a substance. It means one out of a million the way percent means one of a hundred. So lead of 90 ppm means 90 parts out of a million. Bullet point three: Since the number is critical, make sure the test report shows the actual number – not just PASS or FAIL. Without that number you can’t tell if the product complies with the current standards in the law. In CPSIA particularly the lead standards have been continually phased down since August 2008.

Bullet point four: Don’t assume that the test covers everything. Last year we received a passing test report for a small battery powered stuffed toy. The test passed but the battery compartment wasn’t included in the sample tested. After 5,000 pieces were produced we learned that the battery compartment didn’t comply and required several thousand dollars of rework. Expensive mistake.

Labs only perform the tests that they’re asked to perform, just as in the stuffed toy example. So if you see a report with a passing lead test, look closely to see what it is covering. CPSIA requires two different lead tests. The first is for lead in the material itself – sometimes called total lead or lead-in-substrate. (The actual wording in CPSIA is “total lead content by weight for any part of the product”). That limit is currently 100 ppm for children’s products. The second requirement is for lead in any paint or surface coating. That could either be a painted surface of the product itself or the imprint/applique that the supplier or decorator applies. Normally ink used for printed material like books and catalogs is considered part of the material. But heat transfers, pad printing and silk screening inks – particularly if they can be scraped off – are usually considered surface coating. The lead limit for paint and surface coating is 90 ppm. So you need a test for the lead in the material and a separate test for lead in any surface coating.  The lead in material test is usually labeled on a test report as something like “CPSIA Lead in substrate.”  The lead in surface coating test is usually labeled 16 CFR 1303 for the section number of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) containing the regulation.

Bullet point five: European standards are for Europe. US standards are for the US. They aren’t the same. If you see a passing test report for EN71 – the European toy safety standard – don’t assume that the product will pass ASTM F963 – the US toy safety standard. They’re different.

Bullet point six:  If your product happens to be a toy, it needs to comply with the the Federal Toy Safety Standard usually referred to as ASTM F963. This used to be a voluntary standard but in CPSIA – the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act – Congress made it mandatory. ASTM F963 isn’t one test – it’s 67 pages of various tests for which toys need to comply. If you drop the toy from three feet will it shatter?  Is it a choke hazard?  Does it have sharp edges? Lots of things like that. So if your product is a toy, be sure that the report states that it is fully compliant with all applicable tests from the current ASTM F963 standard. Most labs will do that automatically but remember our battery compartment experience.

Bullet point seven: Toys (and child care items) need to be tested for six phthalates: DEHP, DBP, and BBP, DINP, DIDP, and DnOP. These are plasticizers – chemicals added to make plastic more flexible like the strand that attaches the ear buds to your iPod. The maximum limit for each of these phthalates is .1 percent. Make sure the test report lists all six and indicates that there is no more than .1 percent of each one.

These are the basics for the tests required by CPSIA. There are certainly plenty of other possible tests if your product is subject to another Federal Act, ban or regulation. And there are state regulations too. But let’s save those for a future article.

Remember these seven bullets and you’re 90% of the way there.

Is it a toy? We may find out soon.

Think you know a toy when you see one?  We should soon find out if the Consumer Product Safety Commission agrees with you.

At last month’s PPAI Product Safety Summit in Denver, CPSC Director of Regulatory Enforcement Mary Toro told attendees that the Commission is working on new guidance regarding toys.   The implication for suppliers in the promotional products industry is significant – whether “executive toys” like stress relievers, puzzles and desktop games will fall under the CPSIA toy definition.  If these products do fall under CPSIA, the law requires that they undergo much more expensive testing than other children’s products.

Ever since the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was signed into law by President Bush in August 2008 there has been controversy about the definitions that Congress wrote into the Act for children’s products and for toys.  For children’s products Congress said that the product had to be “intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger.”   For toys, Congress left out the word primarily stating simply that “the term children’s toy means a consumer product designed or intended by the manufacturer for a child 12 years of age or younger for use by the child when the child plays.”

In September 2008, at the first public meeting CPSC held after the law was enacted, I posed a question to CPSC senior staffers about executive toys and specifically about stress relievers.  Another attendee asked about an executive basketball hoop that mounts on the back of an office door and is distributed as a free gift with Quervo tequila. Neither one of these examples is sold for  young kids, particularly the liquor promotion.   Cheryl Falvey, the chief legal counsel for CPSC, said that the staff would have to consider these questions carefully but noted that because Congress didn’t say they had to be primarily for 12 and under that it would be difficult question.  She also added, “..as a mother I can tell you that it’s likely they’ll end up at home in the toy box.”

More than a year later, at an ICPHSO product safety conference in February 2010, I again posed the same question to Ms. Falvey. She noted that the Commission was working on a new guidance document to help clarify the ambiguities surrounding the term children’s product.  That document, entitled Final Interpretive Rule on Definition of Children’s Products, was released later that year and approved by the Commission in September 2010.  But while it provided guidance on how to determine if a product is a “children’s product” under CPSIA, it didn’t answer the open questions about toys – and particularly about executive toys.

What’s at stake?   Potentially tens of thousands of dollars per year in third party testing for suppliers who have executive toys in their line.   For children’s products, CPSIA requires third party lead testing – relatively inexpensive tests that are usually no more than $50 and sometimes much less.  But for children’s toys, the Act requires more. Toys must comply with the many provisions of a 67 page Toy Safety Standard known as ASTM F963.  This used to be a voluntary standard but in CPSIA Congress made it mandatory. In addition, toys cannot contain more than .1 percent of six different phthalates.   ASTM F963 testing and phthalate testing are not inexpensive like lead tests. F963 testing runs upwards of $500 for a single toy and phthalate testing can be even more.  We typically budget at least $1,500 per toy for testing.

To be sure, there are many suppliers who will commission ASTM F963 testing even if their executive toys are not covered by CPSIA, Prime included.  The toy safety standard includes many tests that confirm the quality and integrity of a product – drop tests, sharp edges, choke hazard, material quality, etc.  But for products marketed primarily to adults, it will give much more flexibility to the industry if suppliers have the choice on a product by product basis to conduct their own risk analysis and determine what to test rather than a government mandate.  Hopefully the Commission will feel the same way.

“Good morning. I’m calling from the Consumer Products Safety Commission.”

It isn’t hard to imagine how the call would go.

“Hello, Mr. XYZ Promotional Products Supplier?  I’d like to speak to the owner or president of your company.  I’m calling from the Consumer Products Safety Commission.”

“Yes, I’m the owner of XYZ.  How can I help you?”

“Good morning sir.  Well, sir, we received a complaint from one of the consumer advocacy groups we work with that you manufactured a children’s backpack that doesn’t comply with the law.  We sent a few samples to our lab here in Bethesda and they were right.  The handle of this bag tested at 1,700 ppm and the fabric was over 500.”

“Children’s backpack?”  We don’t sell children’s backpacks.”

“Hmm.  Well the label inside says XYZ.  Is that you?”

“Yes, but we don’t sell children’s products!  We sell business to business.”

“Well, it doesn’t really matter who you sold it to.  The one I’m looking at has a scene on the front of three little bears heading to a red schoolhouse.  The developmental psychologists over in our Department of Human Factors tell us this bag age grades from 6-9 years old.  That makes it a children’s product.”

“Bears, red schoolhouse?   We don’t sell any children’s products.

“Well, do you know how these bears got on this bag?”

“I don’t know about any bears.  We just print whatever art the customer sends us.  We only have a few hours to get these bags through the factory and into the UPS truck.  We’re focused on getting the registration correct, getting a crisp imprint, matching the customers colors and meeting the in-hands date.  We don’t pay attention to what the image is or what the slogan means.  Most of our workers don’t even speak English.”

“Well, you might want to rethink that process, Mr. XYZ.  As far as our agency is concerned you manufactured a children’s product that doesn’t comply with the law.   We’re referring this matter over to our recall folks.  You’ll want to have a discussion with them as soon as possible.”

This hypothetical story would be cute if it wasn’t so serious.  If that backpack order was for 10,000 bags and CPSC “suggested” a recall, the cost to everyone – supplier, distributor and end-buyer – could easily run into six figures.  The legal fees alone …well, you know that story.

So how did we get here and what is the solution?

The problem started because Congress didn’t have the promotional products industry in mind when they wrote the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).  They were targeting companies like Mattel and Hasbro – companies that produce children’s products and toys for a specific age range.  In fact, the very first criteria that Congress wrote into the law for determining whether a product is a children’s product is …”A statement by a manufacturer about the intended use of such product, including a label on such product if such statement is reasonable.”

Suppliers in the promotional products industry usually don’t have any idea how an end-buyer is going to use a product.   Many times the distributor doesn’t even know – particularly in a bid situation or when an order comes in over the Internet.   Yet, unless distributors and suppliers both know the intended use of a product, it’s difficult to be sure that the product will comply with CPSIA.  Distributors won’t know that they should select compliant product and suppliers have no indication other than the artwork.

Even if a supplier takes the time to evaluate the art, it can be challenging from the image or slogan to figure out who the product is intended for.  Winnie the Pooh is easy.  A less obvious but equally juvenile design is not.

So what are some possible solutions for our industry?   Together with colleagues and PPAI, I’ve met with CPSC senior staff and here are some solutions we’ve discussed.

1) Suppliers can identify in their lines each product that could possibly be regarded by CPSC as a children’s product, either because it innately fits the children’s product definition or because it could become a children’s product after being imprinted with a juvenile image.  Then, if each of these products is manufactured and tested to CPSIA children’s product standards, there is no issue.   No one would have to evaluate art or worry about who a particular order is intended for because EVERY product complies.

2)  Another option is for suppliers to indicate in their catalogs, website, on ESP and SAGE, the specific products in their line that have been manufactured and tested as meeting CPSIA children’s product standards.  This option is a little more risky than option 1 because it requires more vigilance by everyone.  If a distributor sends in a juvenile imprint order for one of the products that isn’t marked as compliant and the supplier produces and ships it, then liability for everyone is still an issue.  This option could work if distributors and suppliers have good communication and orders are clearly marked as “intended for children”.  eDistributors who receive orders over the Internet should require customers to answer a question about the intended use of the product – whether it is intended for young children – and the response should be included on the corresponding order to their supplier.

The one thing that none of us in the industry can afford to do is to ignore this issue or assume it’s someone else’s problem.   This is a case where it really does take a village – everyone working together – supplier, distributor and end-buyer – so we make sure we all get it right.   Who is the product intended for?  Are children involved?   If so, select only products which have been manufactured and tested as compliant with CPSIA standards.   On that issue, there is no other option.

The Problem with Test Reports

It was one of our hottest selling bags and we were flat out-of-stock.  At least a dozen backorders had already piled up by the time the container with 150,000 new pieces finally arrived at our receiving dock.

The product, a polyester backpack with a zippered pocket, came in four colors, each with a matching coated zipper pull.  The arriving pieces should have gone into production as fast as the container was unloaded.  Instead, I received a chilling email from my in-house testing lab:

Product failed XRF test upon receipt. Lead: 4,600 ppm in surface coating of zipper pull. Shipment quarantined.

4,600!  The legal limit was 600 ppm if those bags were decorated for children.  How could it be?  Didn’t we have a pristine test report from a major third party lab just weeks earlier?

Yes, it was true.  This shipment failed but weeks earlier we had received a current test report in which the same product from the same factory passed every test with flying colors, and from one of the most respected CPSC-certified labs in the world.   What could have gone wrong?

A lot went wrong, we learned.  To begin with, the sample that was sent to the testing lab was made from a different batch of material than the production pieces.   That’s not unusual.  As long as the product spec, bill of materials and factory doesn’t change you shouldn’t have to send every batch to be third party tested.

But that’s the point.  Something obviously did change but no one knew about it.   Maybe not even the factory.  It’s the same thing that happened to all those Barbie Dolls® back in 2007.  In this case it was the zipper pull.  The production pieces were sprayed with a different coating than the sample.

So what can we learn from this incident?   Does it mean you can’t rely on third party test reports?

No, the report was fine.   The sample that passed the test was fine.  The problem was the factory, not the testing lab.

Factories assemble products from raw materials and components that they buy from other suppliers.  A bag factory will buy fabric, lining, metal, paint, grommets, thread, handles, wheel assemblies, binding, and whatever else they need from a a variety of sources.   If they are required to make a product that complies with 100 ppm lead, that’s what they’ll specify to their suppliers.  But how many factories are equipped as we are to scan every incoming shipment to verify that it complies with the spec?  Very few, if any, in my experience.  They rely on the integrity of their supply chain and sometimes that supply chain lets them down.

The problem could be with just a portion of an order.  Maybe the factory runs out of a particular material and needs a little extra to complete the order.  But their main supplier is out of stock, or won’t accept orders for small quantities.  So the factory goes elsewhere to fill the need.  Maybe the extra material complies, maybe not.

It’s why Prime and other quality suppliers who buy from dozens of factories in China and elsewhere can’t rely on a once per year third party test report.  In our case, we’ve had our testing lab in-house since October 2007 – to check every incoming shipment, no matter what the previous test report says.   Other quality oriented suppliers in the industry do the same, either in China or in the US.

The most important lesson is to understand that compliance is not a destination.  It’s not something that you do once or periodically.  It’s a journey, day in and day out.  The process never stops.  Whatever you did yesterday means little for the product that is produced tomorrow unless you work as hard at being vigilant tomorrow as you did yesterday.

For distributors the lesson is to know your supplier well.  Understand that test reports are only one indication of a good compliance program.  There are many suppliers in the industry with rock solid compliance programs that you can rely on.   Visit with your suppliers whenever you can, either in person or at trade shows, ask to meet or speak with their compliance officer.  Ask what kinds of checks and balances the supplier uses to guarantee consistent, safe and compliant product.

Remember:  In a great compliance program third party test reports are just the tip of the iceberg.

Problem or Opportunity for Promotional Products Distributors?

At a Harvard program I enrolled in many years ago, the great Marty Marshall taught us the three most important words in the marketing lexicon: What’s going on?  Starting with those simple words we learned a disciplined process to identify problems and opportunities – issues or threats in the marketplace that might enable us to gain a competitive advantage.

In our industry, concern about product safety is an important thing that is going on and a problem that could easily become your opportunity. Ever since the summer of 2007 and those massive recalls of Chinese toys containing too much lead, the world of product safety and regulatory compliance has been turned on it ear. Complicated and sometimes ambiguous laws have been passed at the state and federal level, testing labs have been swamped with new business and corporate America has been put on notice that cheap products imported from China can be risky.

No shortage of problems here: Complex new product safety regulations sometimes different from state to state, uncertainty and confusion from buyers, an industry scrambling to learn compliance and even the experts trying to wrap their heads around this juggernaut.

But as Marty Marshall taught, problems can be golden opportunities for enterprising marketers.

Corporate America needs promotional products. And because of the risks, because of these problems, they need a knowledgable and conscientious distributor to guide them, protect them, to act as a fiduciary for their most valuable asset – their good name – to ensure that it only goes on quality products that are safe and compliant and is never put on a product that might cause risk or embarrassment. In short, they need a trusted advisor. You.

We’re a commodity industry. Many of our products can be obtained from a seemingly limitless number of suppliers and distributors. But as a trusted advisor you change the paradigm. Instead of price driven sales, yours are value driven sales. Now, instead of losing business to low-bid competitors your clients often select you without bidding, because they trust you. They understand that you’re selecting appropriate products from suppliers with rock solid compliance programs and that you’ll never risk putting their name in harms way.

You don’t have to be a product safety expert but you do need to learn the basics. PPAI has a broad range of educational materials and webinars to help you get started. If you have questions, send me an email or give me a call. Within a short time you’ll learn the issues and be well on your way to becoming a trusted product safety advisor and a very savvy promotional products marketer.

Author note: Sadly, in the course of researching this article, I found that my old professor had passed away. Marty was a brilliant marketer, a motivating teacher and his legacy will live on for many years.

Marty Marshall Article:  http://www.hbs.edu/news/releases/martinvmarshall.html
PPAI Product Safety page:  http://www.ppai.org/inside-ppai/product-safety/

What Matters Most is Protecting Your Customer

It started with such a simple and noble objective – protecting children from lead and other toxins.

Remember the millions of Barbie® Dolls recalled in the summer of 2007 for too much lead in the paint?  That was the catalyst for the Federal law we all know of as CPSIA.  But what we ended up with is anything but simple.  Even CPSIA experts have a hard time agreeing about what is or isn’t a children’s product under Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) guidelines.

At PPAI’s recent Product Safety Summit in Denver, I projected images of several products and asked attendees to raise their hand if they thought the product was a children’s product.  The first image was a simple water bottle for a first grade Little League team.  The imprint said “Meadowbrook Little League” in bold Helvetica type.  The second image was the same bottle with an imprint of Dora the Explorer.  One is considered a general use product, one is a children’s product.  Same bottle, same lead content, different imprint.  Both are going to be used by the same 6 year old kids.  One requires testing and must comply with CPSIA requirements.  One doesn’t.

These examples go on and on.  They make you scratch your head and wonder what happened to that simple noble objective.  At the Summit, our featured speaker was Mary Toro, head of regulatory enforcement at CPSC.  Even Mary wasn’t sure whether some of the products we showed would be considered children’s products.  It’s complicated even for the experts.

How did this happen?  Another noble objective gone awry.  In trying to please the varied constituencies, CPSC came up with a compromise:  If a product appeals mostly to young children, it’s a children’s product.  If the same product appeals equally to everyone, it’s a general use product.  Helvetica lettering apparently appeals to everyone, Dora doesn’t.

But is it a good thing that certain products can be sold for use by young children without having to comply with child safety laws?   Not for the promotional products industry.  The risk to our customers is too great.

Consider this:  If a product is going to be used by children – a general use product that is to be used by all ages – how would it play in the press if it was revealed that the product was full of lead or cadmium or phthalates?   What embarrassment could that cause your customer if it became viral on the web or, heaven forbid, the subject of a Keith Morrison exposé on Dateline?  Can you imagine the phone call you would get asking how you could have put the company in that position?

Two recent cases illustrate how toxins in products can have a devastating impact on a company’s reputation – even if the products are compliant.  The first is McDonald’s costly Shrek glass recall and the second involved reusable grocery bags containing lead from Publix, Safeway and others.  Each involves products that may have been technically compliant in a court of law but not in the court of public opinion.  Each involved millions of dollars in negative publicity in addition to the millions spent in recalling the glasses and bags.

The message is clear:  As fiduciaries of our customers’ most valuable asset – their good name – let’s make sure we’re selling products that meet the CPSIA limits for lead and phthalates regardless of whether the product is technically going to be considered a children’s product or not.  In addition to protecting our customers’ good name, we’ll be protecting our own future.  Remember: Large corporations are risk averse.  It wouldn’t take many high profile fiascos for these businesses to decide that promotional products are too risky.

Insist that all products you sell – and particularly those for which children may be involved – are compliant with the new 100 ppm lead standard and all other applicable provisions of CPSIA.