A new law hurts small toy stores and toymakers
New regulations banning harmful chemicals in children's items has had unintended consequences for small businesses and crafters.
Amy Turn Sharp started making toys because of Thomas the Tank Engine. The 2007 recall of wooden trains with lead paint inspired Ms. Turn Sharp and her husband, a master carpenter, to start making wooden toys for babies.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's really just Joseph and me in our backyard. No machinery, no workers," says Turn Sharp, whose toymaking business, Little Alouette, makes it feasible for her to stay home with her two children. (Making toys is a family affair: Their 4-1/2 year-old son likes to help rub organic flaxseed into the finished wood teethers, blocks, and trains.) The Worthington, Ohio, couple make all their products from maple, felled by a neighboring farmer. "It's just us producing things by hand."
But now fallout from the recall that got them started and others may very well close them down. "We started our company because of Thomas the Tank Engine. We were sick of unsafe toys," says Turn Sharp. "And here we are, and we're going to go out of business because of unsafe toys."
After the recall of millions of toys manufactured in China in 2007, Congress passed the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) last year to protect children from lead and phthalates. Under the new guidelines, which are set to take effect Feb. 10, any product manufactured for children under 12 must undergo third-party testing for certification.
The law isn't just for toys, stress critics, who say it is too sweeping and will unfairly impact small businesses. Clothing, backpacks, bicycles, books, science equipment – anything intended for a child under 12 is affected. They argue that the law, however well-intentioned, has the potential to cause thousands of small US businesses to close at a time when unemployment is surging and the country is entering its second year of recession.
"Once again, here's a situation where it's the small business that suffers the most," says Kathryn Howard, an environmental and consumer expert with the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology. "Mattel can easily afford to test every one of their Barbie dolls. The smaller guys are the ones that manufacture in the US – as opposed to China and other parts of the world.
"I see the environmental benefit," she says. But she suggests that the government explore ways to make the testing more affordable for small companies and phase it in over a longer period of time.
Testing costs can start from $400 to $500 and run into thousands of dollars, according to some estimates, depending on the complexity of the item. Each unique product has to be tested – meaning that small, medium, and large shirts must be tested individually. In a line of stuffed toys birds, for example, the chickadee, robin, and eagle all need a separate test.
The prospective bill is causing sticker shock and cries of outrage from small US-based artisans and manufacturers, independent toy shops, and baby boutique stores.
"We need an outcry from consumers: 'Wait we asked for safe toys, we didn't ask you to put the industry out of business,' " says Kathleen McHugh, president of American Specialty Toy Retailing Association in Chicago, which has 1,000 members.
She says that independent toy stores have two alternatives, neither of them good: They can have all their products tested or throw all their untested inventory out. Either scenario would put them out of business, she says.