There's plenty of bluster from Washington these days over imported toys and other products that might be dangerous. But for the typical consumer worried about unsafe imports, nobody has been able to answer the simple yet confounding question: What can I do about it?
For big-ticket products like cars and appliances, we're used to finding a trove of useful information on the Web that helps us make clear decisions about safety and performance. But for toys, food, medicines, and basic healthcare products, it's a much murkier picture. There are few third-party testers. We'd like to think that companies vouch for the quality of their own products, but huge safety recalls by Mattel, Fisher-Price, Thomas & Friends, and other brand-name companies have revealed gaping holes in quality control at far-flung multinational corporations.
At least we have an army of government regulators serving as a safety net, right? Uh, nope. The New York Times and others have pointed out that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, responsible for enforcing safety standards, has been gutted in recent years, even as imports have been surging. The federal government, it turns out, spends more money monitoring the safety of animal feed than testing the safety of products used by children.
I've asked a number of industry experts the bottom-line question: What can consumers do on their own to research the safety of toys and other products imported from overseas? The answer, unfortunately, is not much. But I've uncovered a few basic principles that can help consumers better understand what they're buying, and whether there's likely to be any risk.
"Made in China" isn't the problem. It's almost irresistible for politicians to bash a monolithic China for foisting dangerous products on unsuspecting American kids. "Made in China has now become a warning label," Republican Sen. Sam Brownback thundered recently at a congressional hearing.
Great sound bite. Wrong villain. Had Brownback substituted "Made by Mattel" for "Made in China," he might be closer to the truth.
That's because the image of shoddy Chinese-owned factories hoodwinking naive American corporations is largely a myth. Most big American companies importing products from China own the factories where those products are made or partially own them through a joint venture. So the companies themselves are on-scene at the source of the problem—or should be—and they represent the first line of responsibility for dangerous components.
Successful importers like British department store chain Marks & Spencer and Dutch electronics giant Phillips are well known for relentlessly checking and testing products while they're still on the assembly line—instead of relying on others to test, or waiting until products have already been shipped. "It's the responsibility of manufacturers and distributors to check up on their suppliers," says Wharton Prof. Marshall Meyer, who consults with many firms in China. "They need to go there and see what they're doing." That's a step the U.S. toy companies obviously skipped—and are now hustling to institute.
Brand names still matter. Mattel is working 24-7 to repair the damage to its reputation from the recall of several million Barbie accessories and other toys. Why? Because it has made a huge investment in its brand image, which will be wasted money if consumers decide Mattel toys aren't safe. "Mattel's product quality will improve," insists Merle Hinrich, CEO of Global Sources, a Hong Kong company that helps match corporations with international suppliers. The safety recalls, he argues, will ultimately lead to better products by forcing manufacturers to be more diligent about safety. And that happens only when a company has a brand name to defend. One startling bit of evidence is the toy industry's plea for more oversight by government regulators—a rare instance of corporate America inviting the kind of scrutiny it usually spends millions on lobbyists to avert.
Branding, of course, is about marketing, not safety, and there's nothing about a recognized brand name that guarantees quality. The connection begins to form only when safety questions affect profits, which is happening now. That's good for consumers.
The cheapest stuff is the riskiest. By the same logic, little-known distributors have a lot less to lose by selling flawed products, since they can just remarket their goods under another no-name brand while suffering little damage. Consumers who shop at prominent retailers like Wal-Mart or Lowe's can still enjoy cheap stuff with a reasonable sense of security since the retailer's name is on the line. But it's probably not a good idea to buy unknown brands at fly-by-night discounters, especially ingestible products, toys with small pieces that could come loose or anything else with obvious safety implications.
Cheap imports are here to stay. Lawmakers can fume all they want about sturdy American-made goods being driven off the shelves by cheaper imported stuff, but it's not going to change. The world's economies are far too interconnected to try unraveling them. And while Communist China is always a ready bogeyman, Americans buy products from lots of other low-cost countries—such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia—with home-grown standards no more stringent than those in China. If there's a safety problem with toys made in Indonesia, will politicians try to score points by blaming the Indonesian government? Or take the offending company to task instead?
It's also worth keeping in mind that over the past 30 years, there have been similar safety issues with products from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan—countries that are now considered first-rate trading partners that produce high-quality goods. Unless there's an ominous turn, the same thing will happen with China.
Imports remain a huge economic boon. Scary headlines about cheap imported goods obscure the benefits they bring. There are reasonable arguments on both sides about American jobs going overseas, but one thing that's indisputable is the cost savings that consumers enjoy from products manufactured at the cheapest, most efficient factories in the world. As imports from China and other low-cost countries have surged, the price of clothing, electronics, building materials, and a lot of other products have fallen, sometimes plunged. "Cheap stuff provides a massive benefit to low- and middle-income families," Hinrich says. And many American consumers remain quite comfortable buying cheap imports, whatever the risk. But don't expect any congressional hearings about that.
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