You get a call one morning from a marketing manager referred to you by one of your customers. She desperately needs 7,500 tote bags for an event the following week and wants to know if you can deliver. You do some quick math and realize you could be talking about an order approaching $10,000. Now, what questions are you going to ask?
Of course you’re going to ask about budget, about the particular bag and imprint she has in mind, and where the bags are to be shipped, but are you willing to raise the product safety and compliance questions? Could there be a regulatory issue involved? Who is the intended audience for the product? Will children be recipients? What does the art look like? Is it a juvenile imprint? Will the bags be distributed in California? Does the end-buyer company have any policies regarding lead, phthalates or cadmium in the bag or the imprint?
With a plum order in hand—especially a $10,000 order—even veteran distributors might shy away from questions like these if the client hasn’t mentioned the issue first.
The same dilemma exists for suppliers. You receive a quote request for 2,500 custom-shaped flashlights and the client doesn’t provide many details. What testing are you going to include? If the flashlights are for a Boy Scout Jamboree you have different considerations than if the flashlights are for a Mr. Goodwrench promotion. What should you build into your quote for testing, and what specifications will you require of your factory when you ask for a quote? Every lab test you include and every product safety specification you require of your factory is likely to increase your cost. If you specify that the material must be lead or cadmium free, or that the inks be phthalate free, there will likely be an associated cost that your competitor might not be including. These are difficult questions, particularly when you are quoting blindly without knowing the whole story.
Let’s frame the discussion between mandatory standards (what’s required by law) and voluntary standards (what may be required by your customer’s own policies, by market pressure or by some other non-legal reason).
The word “mandatory” should guide you when it comes to asking questions. In both of the examples—the tote bags and the flashlight—if the final decorated product is determined to be a children’s product and it doesn’t comply with applicable regulations, then you could be risking an expensive recall and a public embarrassment. Best practice is to learn the mandatory compliance regulations for products in our industry and then ask enough questions of your customer to enable you to properly quote. In other words, know what to ask of your testing lab and what to require of your supplier or factory. As the law is currently written and enforced, ignorance of the intended audience does not appear to be a defense. You will not likely get much sympathy from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) by saying, “I didn’t know it was a children’s product, and I didn’t know they were going to hand it out to kids.” It could be a very expensive discussion.
Voluntary standards are a different matter. McDonald’s recalled millions of Shrek glasses because of cadmium in the decoration even though there was no mandatory regulation that applied. A few years ago, when the “Today Show” created a frenzy about the chemical BPA in polycarbonate bottles, hundreds of corporations stopped buying them. Yet BPA is still perfectly legal, even today. Many corporations have policies about toxins like these that go beyond regulation. Some, such as Nintendo, borrow standards from ASTM F963, the toy safety standard, and apply those requirements to products that are not toys. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) bans children’s toys if any of six phthalates measure more than 0.1 percent, but Nintendo applies this standard to every promotional product it purchases, not just children’s toys. Other companies require the fabric in products like tote bags and string backpacks to comply with the Flammable Fabrics Act even though that law applies primarily to apparel and not to tote bags or string backpacks.
So what is the best practice when it comes to quoting? While each distributor or supplier needs to consider his or her own situation, here are some things to take into consideration:
Since mandatory standards are not optional, you have to deal with them no matter what. If you are knowledgeable about the law, you may be able to make a determination from the product or an image and not have to query the client about the intended audience. While this approach has risk for borderline products, there are hundreds of products in the industry that are obviously not toys or children’s products. As a general rule, however, it is safer to evaluate the art and ask the client who the intended audience is before quoting. Then you can determine the required standards and build material specification and testing into your price.
There are those who would argue that including product testing in a quote may make your product appear more expensive than competitive quotes that do not include testing. To me, that’s a sales issue, not a pricing issue. At a minimum, your quote and presentation should highlight the mandatory regulations that apply to the product and indicate the amount you have included for third-party testing. Your salesmanship should enable the client to appreciate your understanding of compliance and the fact that you are protecting her and her company. It seems more professional to me to openly provide the distributor or end buyer all the facts she will need to approve the sale. Once a price has been approved, it puts everyone in a difficult position if you to go back and say, “We need to add $1,000 for mandatory testing.” These are hard conversations that sometimes do not have happy endings.
What about voluntary tests, the ones that aren’t required by law? You might be tempted to disregard them as unnecessary costs that could price you out of a sale, but that would be too simplistic an approach and not necessarily in your best interest or your customer’s. Because of the odd nuances of CPSIA, there are numerous products that can be distributed to young children that are not considered “children’s products” and therefore not subject to mandatory testing requirements. These products are considered by CPSC to be “general-use products” for children of all ages, not the “primarily 12 years of age or younger” crowd covered by the CPSIA. But if you sell a general-use product for seven-year-olds, isn’t it likely that your client will expect it to be tested to children’s product standards? And won’t you be embarrassed if the client calls you one day to say that he just found out that one of these products was chock full of lead? Do you think the client will be sympathetic if you explain that product didn’t fit the technical definition of a children’s product so you decided not to test it? Not likely, especially if some news outlet is asking for a statement about why her company is distributing lead-filled products to kids.
Just because a test is voluntary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about it. Some may want executive toys to comply with ASTM F963, the toy safety standard, even if they’re not children’s toys. Or they may want the imprint or transfer to comply with the CPSIA phthalate standard. My suggestion for a best practice is to list on your quote each voluntary test your client may want to consider and provide a place for the client to check off yes or no for each test. If the client checks off “no” for every voluntary test, then there could be no embarrassing phone call later. You would be covered.
Product safety and regulatory compliance have transformed the competitive landscape in the promotional products industry. While the rules can seem daunting at first, they provide an outstanding opportunity for promotional products professionals to distinguish themselves as trusted advisors. Dealing with product regulation and testing in a quote document is one golden opportunity for those who choose to embrace it.
Rick Brenner is CEO of supplier Prime Resources Corp. (UPIC: PRIME), founding board member of Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), chair of QCA’s compliance committee, board member of PPAI and a member of PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group. The opinions stated here are strictly his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any of these organizations. Contact Rick at email@example.com or follow his blog at www.rickbrenner.com.
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