Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 9, Issue 44
All worry and no playA new consumer safety law aims to protect children, but is taking out small-scale operators along the way
BY SHELLY CONE
by one, to discuss their fears, trade research, and commiserate. Their common worry? That they’ll soon have to close up shop, put the kids in daycare, and find another means of making ends meet.
A broadly written law requiring lead and phthalate testing on all children’s products is set to go into effect on Feb. 10. The text of the law has prompted much confusion and threatens the livelihood of mom-and-pop shops. The law, meant to regulate large manufacturers that outsource overseas, also applies to the little guy. Some crafters and small-scale manufacturers are particularly hurt by the wording and possible enforcement, because many such home-based business owners pride themselves on using all-natural, child-safe materials.
‘A breath of fresh air’
A visit to craftsburykids.com will reveal brightly colored posy bracelets; a sterling mermaid pendant; an afternoon tea jacket in orange marmalade; and a hand-knit, chocolate brown, bear-eared beanie cap. A whimsical welcome—“A breath of fresh air in a gadget filled world.”—invites visitors to browse for limited-run or one-of-a kind handcrafted children’s items. They are precious. They are pretty. And the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires that they be tested for toxins.
President George W. Bush signed the act in August 2008 after a series of toys, lunchboxes, and other items were recalled around the nation due to unsafe levels of lead. The way the law is written now it requires that all children’s products undergo a batch testing process that certifies the product is safe from lead and phthalates, which are added to plastics to make them more flexible. The conundrum lies in who has to test and who carries the burden of proof.
The law implies that all manufacturers, large or small, have to test what they make, a requirement that, in most cases, could eat up a small shop’s profits.
Interpreting and enforcing the new law falls to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and recent clarifications to the law have done little to address the concerns of a growing cache of sellers of handmade toys and other children’s products—sellers like Cecilia Leibovitz and Michael Secore, outspoken members of the Handmade Toy Alliance. Leibovitz and Secore own Craftsbury Kids, an online consignment shop, based in Montpelier, Vt. Most of the items they sell are limited-run or one-of-a-kind, so testing would be near impossible for the merchants featured on their site.
“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of the merchants on our site would have to shut down,” Secore said.
Another member of the Handmade Toy Alliance, Jill Chuckas, of Stamford, Conn., also faces closing her home-based business. The owner of craftybaby.com makes baby bibs, fleece blankets, and nap pads.
“The way it is written right now, I will go out of business Feb. 10 because I can’t afford testing,” she said.
The law requires that a manufacturer—Chuckas included—send a percentage of each batch of similar products to a third party lab for testing.
For Chuckas, a batch is 10 items, each of which retails for $40. To comply with the law, she would have to send one item from her batch for testing. The third party testing lab in her state of Connecticut charges $400. The remaining nine items would only bring in $360.
A representative from Intertek, a Consumer Product Safety Commission-accredited testing lab, said the company tries to
put together custom testing packages for its clients depending on their needs.
“The total cost of testing a consumer product for lead has much to do with the complexity of the product, but simply put, a simple lead test by an accredited laboratory is less than $100,” said Julie Naujokas, Intertek’s marketing and communications director for Consumer Goods.
Online discussion boards and various handcrafter websites quote other lab prices anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 per batch—prohibitively expensive for home-based businesses, though they may not cause as much of a ripple for corporations, which often build product safety testing into their manufacturing process.
Santa Maria-based Prince Lionheart is one such company. Prince Lionheart just launched a silicone baby bottle that contains no BPA, phthalates, PVC, or lead. Its recent release amid product recalls and lead-testing laws may seem like a calculated move, but the bottle’s conception was actually a bit before its time.
CEO Kelly Griffiths said they came up with the bottle several years ago, but it wasn’t widely accepted by buyers who were used to stocking their shelves with plastic. As concern over chemicals in plastics rose, the company decided to revisit the silicone bottle.
Griffiths said the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requirements will only affect the company’s administration process because it already adheres to stricter European testing standards.
“By the time the products are finished, they’re pretty darn safe,” Griffiths said.
She explained that she spent seven years with the company in Europe, and is happy to see the United States taking a serious look at the lead safety issue.
“I think it’s a great thing, because as a consumer you trust the product on the shelves is safe,” she said.
Crafty Baby’s Chuckas agrees. Though her livelihood is at risk, she still believes in the intent of the law. She just thinks it was poorly written.
“The spirit of the law is a good spirit,” she said. “I don’t think anyone debates the fact we need to be safe and keep toxins away from our kids and out of their mouths.”
Emily Kryder, press secretary for Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), said different interpretations of the law have led to the circulation of a lot of misinformation. Capps has been a big supporter of the act, and was one of its co-sponsors.
Some of that misinformation concerns whether thrift stores, consignment shops, and other secondhand retailers would have to test the children’s products they sell. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a press release on Jan. 8, meant to clarify the issue.
The release states: “Manufacturers, importers, and retailers are expected to comply with the new Congressionally mandated laws.” It goes on to explain that sellers of used children’s products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, aren’t required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standard, or new toy standard.
Kryder addressed some of the misconceptions in an interview with the Sun, starting with the fact that retailers won’t have to test for lead—the burden of responsibility falls only on manufacturers.
Retailers aren’t totally off the hook, however.
“The responsibility is to not knowingly sell products that contain phthalates and lead,” Kryder said.
The same goes for resellers.
That sentiment was reiterated in the commission’s press release that notes: “[R]esellers cannot sell children’s products that exceed the lead limit and therefore should avoid products that are likely to have lead content, unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit.”
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a retailer would probably want to test products that would likely contain the toxins in question. But how would a retailer or reseller know which products to suspect? That’s open for interpretation, but the commission suggests items like children’s jewelry and painted wooden or metal toys.
Kathy Leahy of Goodwill Industries said the group’s Central Coast stores haven’t changed their policy and are still continuing to accept children’s products, especially children’s clothing.
“This is our biggest season as far as donations go,” Leahy said.
She added that the store does screen donations—not necessarily because of the new law but because of the lead-based paint issue that sprang up around toys from China.
Though thrift stores seem to be excluded in the law, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has yet to make any determinations easing the burden on small manufacturers.
Kryder said the law was intended for large manufacturers of children’s products, especially those who outsource overseas. She explained that businesses like Craftsbury Kids and Crafty Baby weren’t meant to be hurt by the law. But the fact is they will be affected. Kryder said that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has authority not over how the law is written, but how it’s interpreted, will continue to make clarifications until it goes into effect.
Meanwhile, online discussion boards are filling with concerns from boutique artisans struggling to make grocery money.
One asks: “I make hair bows. Does this apply to me? A stay at home mom? Trying to make grocery money? Plain silly!!! It would put me out of business!!!”
And another: “I hand knit children’s clothes from newborn up. I also knit toys. Most of my yarn is from Europe. Will I need to have everything tested, if so I need to find another way to put food on the table.”
Unfortunately, there are more questions like these than there are answers, at least at the moment. For now, the growing cache of small manufacturers affected by the new law is finding strength in web connections and a collective effort to persuade lawmakers to more clearly define the law.
Etsy.com, a popular online outlet for handcrafted items, has issued an open letter regarding the act, inviting the ombudsman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to a webchat to discuss the concerns of participating artisans. Concerns include the cost of testing, allowing the use of certification from the original materials manufacturers, and exemptions for people who use natural and organic materials.
The letter states: “Made with love, care, the human touch and—often—all natural materials, these items bring the consumer marketplace back to a personal level where customers can chat with toy makers and even create custom items for specific needs.”
Contact Arts Editor Shelly Cone at email@example.com.