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.

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