Know Your Responsibility For Product Safety

Unlike National Safe Boating Week, May 18-24, there is no week or month dedicated to promoting the safety of promotional products. That’s because producing and selling safe and compliant promotional products is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year responsibility for suppliers and distributors.

Product safety is everyone’s business because it can mean the difference between being in business and being put out of business through litigation and terminal damage to a company’s reputation. In addition to the financial risks, there are potential rewards—knowing the laws and utilizing PPAI’s resources can provide a marketable difference between you and your competitors, particularly with larger clients for whom the stakes are greater because of their brand reputation.

While product safety is a complex issue involving several international, national and state laws, PPAI has provided members with easy-to-learn tools that strip the complexity from the issue and allow distributors and suppliers to learn the basics quickly. A little preparation now could save thousands of dollars tomorrow and protect relationships that are vital to your business.

Sometimes, despite a distributor’s diligence, problems arise. Here’s an example: Two years ago we contracted with a vendor to have a bendable children’s toy manufactured in China for a major U.S. restaurant chain. We did our homework and required the appropriate test results prior to the goods shipping from China. As an added measure, we decided to test them when they arrived in the U.S. Even though the test results in China passed, the tests done in the U.S. failed. We rejected the order and saved our client a potential public relations disaster, which made them appreciate their relationship with us even more. They now trust us as branding experts rather than providers of a commodity product.

Product safety and all things associated with it are like the internet, mobile devices and social media in that its relevance will only increase over time. Utilizing PPAI’s resources now will allow you to be in the know on this increasingly important topic.

In putting together information for this column, I turned to one of the industry’s leading authorities on product safety, Rick Brenner, MAS, a member of PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group and founding board member of the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), who was recently appointed to the board of the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization (ICPHSO). Rick also sits on PPAI’s board and is CEO of supplier Prime Resources Corp. Here are five of Rick’s most critical-issue recommendations:

1.      Change your company culture to develop a product safety/regulatory compliance/industry-protecting mindset as part of your daily activities. For distributors, this means learning to ask key questions of prospects such as who the intended audience is and, if children are to be involved, communicating this information to the supplier. It means learning the appropriate questions to ask to vet suppliers, learning how to select products when children are involved, etc. For suppliers, it means developing processes to perform risk assessments of products, learning to vet and monitor factories, continually testing production runs and communicating effectively with distributors. Since regulatory compliance requires partnership and effective communications between supplier and distributor, changing the culture here implies developing industry-standard best practices for routinely and automatically communicating this information to each other.

2.      Require educationfor suppliers, distributors and clients. The more everyone understands the key regulatory compliance issues in the industry—the rules, risks and challenges—the better job we will do as an industry on behalf of our clients and for the preservation of the industry.

3.      Ensure a sense of responsibility. Wittingly or unwittingly, corporations trust our industry and its practitioners with their most valuable asset—their good name. Whether or not a supplier or distributor does a good or bad job of compliance, it isn’t their name that is most at risk. It is the end buyer’s name or brand going on the product. Some end buyers are aware of these risks but most are not. This places a daunting responsibility on our industry.

4.      Ascertain social accountability, which refers to the working conditions and employment practices in factories primarily located in Asia and developing countries. This has been a key topic for many large corporations for a long time, but it has reached new urgency with the recent factory fires in Bangladesh. When factories are audited, it is extremely common to find at least some violations of local employment practices including underage workers, excessive overtime, failure to pay for required benefits, etc.

5.      Know the distributor’s responsibility as a manufacturer. This is a topic that is often misunderstood. Distributors who import directly also have the same responsibility as suppliers. CPSIA defines importers as manufacturers, and they have primary responsibility under the law. Also, distributors who purchase blank goods, specifically children’s garments, and contract to have the goods decorated, have specific responsibility because they are transforming the product, even if the blank product was certified by its manufacturer. CPSC’s general counsel issued guidance on this last year. That guidance set a high bar that distributors should note and take the steps necessary to comply.

Numerous product safety resources are available at www.ppai.org. Click on Inside PPAI and Product Safety. 

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