Get the Lead Out!
This, the first of my blog entries, was originally supposed to be a “nice to meet you, here’s why I think you should visit with me each week,”- type of intro. Standard fare—easy, breezy and at least vainly attempting to be funny. But, since I believe that candor is essential when forging relationships, there’s something that’s been on my mind that I’d like to share.
I’m a bit of a newcomer to the promotional products arena, but there’s one thing that has been unceremoniously drilled into my head since my very first trade show. This is an industry entrenched in its “process.” Suppliers sell to distributors. Distributors sell to end-buyers. And ne’er the twain shall meet. Try and find a supplier’s phone number on its Web site—that info, you’ll see, is classified. And rightfully so. No one wants to disturb the natural order of things, and, let’s face it, business has been good—$18 billion times (or so) over.
When a battle plan works, those in the trenches are loathe to change it. But while researching a story a few weeks ago, a fatal flaw in the strategy revealed itself.
By now it’s fairly old news that 56,000 imported lunch boxes were recalled by the California Department of Health. And when I was charged with writing a story covering this incident, my first instinct was an empathetic, “That’s a tough break.” Because, even if a supplier took up a 24/7 post in each of its Chinese factories, it’s impossible to physically see the lead in the paint. And, if this particular supplier operated the way many do, they tested the prototype lunch box, found it to have an acceptable level of lead and sent it on its way—not the most statistically sound process, but that wasn’t the story I was assigned to write.
I also wasn’t really aiming to discuss the reasons why product recalls prompt the stricken company, not to mention U.S. consumers, to point the finger at China and China alone. Incidentally, that’s how Mattel ended up in hot water.
But, nonetheless, the “flaw” in the process that changed my story completely happened on our turf, back in April 2006, when the supplier was informed it was being sued by Oakland, California’s Center for Environmental Health to stop importing lead-laden lunch boxes. What? Exactly.
When I spoke with the company’s vice president, he said the company stopped importing that particular model after they were notified of the suit. Okay, good. But what about the other lunch boxes they imported, like the ones a year later for the CDH? If one model had unacceptable levels of lead, wouldn’t others? If the tested sample was okay, does that guarantee the 55,999 coming off the assembly line after it will be okay, too? And who, exactly, is taking these lunch boxes out of kids’ hands and disposing of them?
There are very real, very serious quality consequences that exist when importing products from a country that doesn’t adhere to our standards and regulations, please don’t get me wrong. But that “gamble” notwithstanding, nobody here—on the frontlines of the promotional products industry—seemed to be able to answer those questions. Blame China? Maybe, but let’s also accept our fair share for the inherent flaw in our “process.” We all know who’s driving this thing when it comes to signing contracts and collecting profits and everyone plays their role well. But who’s performing their due diligence that products and procedures are correct? And, maybe even more importantly, who’s accepting responsibility when things go wrong?
We, as an industry, must own this problem. This is an opportunity for suppliers and distributors to sit down together, come up with some real solutions and make things better—for those who truly didn’t know, those who should have known better and those who did know, and now whose businesses might suffer for the industry’s shortcomings.
Nice to start on a lighthearted note, right? If you’re still with me at this point, I’m thinking you might be a lifelong reader. Nevertheless, I am well-aware that, after such a short time in the fold, I have no place being atop a soapbox. So, I’m turning it over to you. What do you think? How should this issue of quality assurance and product safety testing be handled? Shoot the good word below …
P.S. The quasi-funny intro will be duly posted next week, where I will regale you with quirky anecdotes and reveal my love of show tunes.