Ten Ways to Protect Your Clients and Build Your Business

When you consult with your customers about their promotions or inquire of your suppliers about their products, do you ask questions about product safety and compliance?  For your customer – Who will the products be given to? Where will they be distributed?  For your supplier – What third-party tests have been performed for these products?  If you’re not asking basic questions like these, you’re missing valuable opportunities to distinguish yourself from your competitors.  More importantly, you could be putting your customers, your distributorship, your suppliers and even the industry at risk.  Yet, putting yourself in a position where you are confident enough to ask the right questions that will protect everyone in the supply chain is a cinch for promotional products professionals.  Here’s a list of ten guidelines that that every responsible member of the industry should master.

Learn the basic product safety laws and regulations that affect the promotional products industry.  The main one is CPSIA, an acronym for the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.  It’s the federal law that regulates children’s products and toys.  If one of your clients has a promotion that involves young children, you must understand how CPSIA applies and what you must verify with your supplier to ensure compliance.  There are other federal laws to consider as well, such as those that apply to industry products that come into contact with food, like water bottles, tumblers, coolers and lunch bags.  Together with hand sanitizer, sunglasses, and first aid kits, these promotional items are governed by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.  Certain states have regulations as well, such as California’s Proposition 65 and Illinois’ lead law.  There are industry resources to help you learn these basics – educational sessions at industry events and webinars through trade associations to name a few.  You don’t need to know all the technicalities of these laws but you do need to know enough to ask the right questions so you can make informed decisions.  A few hours of product safety training is a great start.

Know your products.  If you’re a supplier, you should know everything you can about each product in your line.  Importers and manufacturers should have technical drawings, a bill of materials (BOM) and performance requirements for each of their products.  These documents comprise the basis of quality control and compliance testing.  Suppliers should perform risk analyses and use and abuse testing when evaluating new products.  Are the products suitable for children?  What ages?  Distributors should ask related questions when selecting products from suppliers.  Has the product been tested by a third-party lab?  Which tests have been conducted?  Does it comply with each state’s safety laws?  What age is it designed for?  Is it a child’s toy?  The more we know about the products we sell the better job we do to protect our clients.

Know your suppliers.  How much do you really know about each of your suppliers?  You can learn a lot from a catalog and website but marketing materials don’t tell you the extent of what goes on behind the scenes.  Does the supplier have a knowledgeable head of compliance?  How does the supplier evaluate new products and vet its factories?  What third-party tests does the supplier commission, how often and for which products?  Does the supplier have an XRF instrument to test products in-house?  What about ink testing?  Are some or all of the supplier’s products compliant as children’s products?  What is the supplier’s policy on Prop 65 compliance?  How will you be indemnified?  These are only examples of the kinds of questions you should be asking each of your suppliers in addition to visiting their headquarters and seeing their operations first hand.

Know your clients.  Each of your clients is unique.  Learn about their differences so you can meet their specific requirements and expectations.  Some companies have testing requirements that exceed applicable regulations.  Others have written social accountability policies for any factory producing a product with their logo.  Companies differ in risk tolerance and rely on you to guide them.  Case in point:  Federal law permits general use products to be sold for use by young children even if the products are not tested, not certified, and even if they contain more lead than allowed for children’s products.  But how would your client feel about handing out a product to children that doesn’t meet children’s product standards?  The more you know about each client’s policies and expectations, the better job you can do to meet their individual needs.

Know the intended audience. When you speak to a client about a promotion, always ask about the target audience – who the products are intended for – and the U.S. states where the products will be distributed.  If the target audience includes children, this should influence your product selection.  Children’s products and toys must meet stringent lead and phthalate requirements, be certified by a third-party lab and carry permanent tracking labels.  Certain U.S. states have additional requirements.  Illinois, for example, has a lead law that exceeds the federal standard.  A best practice for distributors is to highlight on purchase orders to suppliers whether the products are for children and where the products will be distributed.  This will help your supplier verify that your products will be compliant with all applicable regulations.

Know the risks.  Risk is inherent in all that we do whether we are trying a restaurant for the first time, taking advantage of a bargain price, or selecting products blindly from a catalog.  In the promotional products industry, there are product safety risks (will the product hurt anyone), regulatory compliance risks (does the product comply with applicable laws and safety standards), and social accountability risks (could the manufacturing of the product embarrass your client), among others.  No matter what you do, no matter how careful you are, no one can eliminate risk entirely.  Even the most prestigious brands have product failures, recalls and production gaffes.  But you can mitigate risk to a great degree by being aware of risks and making appropriate product and supplier decisions.  Your clients put their most valuable asset in your care—their name and logo—­when they entrust you to select the products that will bear that name.  Treat this responsibility with the care and diligence it deserves.  Brand protection is one of your most sacred responsibilities.

Educate the team.  For most distributors and suppliers, servicing major customers requires a well-organized team effort.  Unless everyone on the team is on the same page, it isn’t likely that you will deliver consistent service, let alone excel.  The same principal applies to product safety and compliance.  The quality of your safety and compliance initiatives will only be as strong as the weakest link.  Take the time to educate everyone on your team in the basics of responsible sourcing.

Stay current.  Even though the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) became effective in August 2008, many of its provisions were phased in gradually and some became progressively more stringent.  At first, third party testing was not required and later it became mandatory.  Originally 600 parts per million (ppm) was the maximum lead allowed in children’s products, then 300 ppm and now 100 ppm.  In addition to phase in rules, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) continually develops new rules that either modify existing regulations or introduce new ones altogether.  For example, CPSC is currently developing a rulemaking to establish a new federal standard for small, powerful magnet sets which have been sold in the promotional industry as puzzles, sculptures and stress relievers.  To help stay current about CPSC changes, go to http://www.cpsc.gov and sign up for email alerts about rule changes, recalls and other product safety news.  And, in addition to CPSC, there are other federal and state laws to stay abreast of.  For updated news on the entire range of product safety regulation affecting the industry, trade associations and testing labs can be great sources of information.

Instill a Product Safety Culture.  Imagine that one day you decide to start eating nothing but 100% organically grown food.  Think of the challenges you would have at least three times a day for the rest of your life.  What are you going to eat?  Where are you going to buy your food?  Where does that food come from?  How is it grown?  How can you be sure?  Solve that problem for breakfast today and it starts over again at lunch.  Whatever you might have done yesterday to ensure your food supply when you were in Chicago won’t help you at all tomorrow when you’re off to New York.  For you to be successful in this new eating habit, planning in advance for the organic food you are going to eat each day and where you are going to obtain it reliably will have to become second nature, as if it were embedded in your DNA.  And so it is with product safety and compliance.  The kinds of food and ingredient questions you would have to ask every day if you drastically changed your eating habits are the same kinds of questions you should be asking every day to ensure safe and compliant product.  What’s in this product?  Who is going to use it?  Where will it be distributed?  How carefully was it made?  What was it tested for?  Was this shipment tested?  How can I be sure?  Ensuring safe and compliant product is a daily journey, not a destination.  Just like my food example, it requires continuous vigilance and attention, order by order, promotion by promotion.

The more that product safety and compliance becomes second nature and an automatic consideration no matter what client or promotion you’re working on, the more you’ll protect your clients, protect your business and ultimately protect the industry, a responsibility we all have to each other.

This article is scheduled for the October 2013 issue of Wearables Magazine

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