Imports at What Cost? Quality

At What Cost Quality

Quality isn’t necessarily your primary concern when you are looking for low-cost toys, diapers, clothing, and other children’s products. Many companies outsource production to keep costs low, which allows importers to sell to North American markets at lower prices than products Made in Canada or Made in USA. Often quality suffers for cost.

Over the past month, we’ve been looking at the real costs of imported children’s products. Today we look at quality of imported children’s products.

Give It to Me Quick

When you buy low-quality imports, you pay in safety and durability—and sometimes you pay at the store twice when you replace cheap products.


Quality Issues

Issues with imports overlap because they all lead to larger issues of sustainability.

Quality can be a safety issue. Last week, I wrote about safety and what you can do to ensure that you don’t buy unsafe children’s products. In some cases, safety issues are caused by inferior materials. As a matter of fact, the rash of recalls in 2007 of toys made in China and sold in the U.S. was the catalyst for safety law of 2008 after the U.S. CPSC recalled 276 different toys in 2007. Mattel alone recalled more than 20 million toys that year. A few of the recalls were for bad design, like the Easy Bake oven burn hazard and the magnetic Batman whose magnets fell off. Most of the toy recalls, though, were for lead in paint or other surface coatings. These toys were made in China with materials sourced in China.

How could so many low-quality toys come out of Chinese factories? Chinese officials wanted to know as well. Factories in China have to be licensed for export. After the recalls began in 2007, 1,726 factories in the province manufacturing the most toys, Guandong Province, were inspected, and 85% were found to be substandard. 44% lost their licenses, reducing the overall number of toy imports that year. When 70-80% of the toys sold in the U.S. are made in China, it shows on store shelves when Chinese factories fail so spectacularly.

What was the consequence of the toy recalls? A group of scholars from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) explored in 2009 consumer and stock market response to 2007 toy recalls. Parents surveyed said that they intended to change their buying habits, and researchers found a spillover effect in lower sales for non-recalled types of toys and for brands not involved in recalls. The whole industry suffered. Why didn’t consumers just avoid the offending manufacturers? Because “Consumers do not recognize manufacturers as well as they recognize brands and trademarks,” said Mara Lederman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and one of the authors of the study. Consumers worried about the safety of all toys that year.

All of this because large toy manufacturers were cutting corners to squeeze costs and boost profits. None of the recalled toys were Made in Canada or Made in USA. Local toymakers weren’t wondering where they could get their hands on some of that cheap leaden paint or how to add a few exposed magnets to cut their costs. Small manufacturers often choose the highest quality materials and do highest quality work. They are making heirloom toys to last long enough that your child can save a favorite toy for their own child someday.

Durability is another cost issue. Inferior materials and faster work cost less, but they often result in products that don’t last as long. Making products that will break and need replacing is exactly the clever plan of Planned Obsolescence. You can’t stimulate demand by making toys that last a lifetime. The idea of making products that would last only for a limited time was a mid-20th century idea of American industry to ensure long-term sales. If toys didn’t break and diapers didn’t wear out, why would anyone ever buy more? They wouldn’t, and that would be the end of industry. You see your role in this process, of course. Once you are in the cycle, you must continue to buy as products regularly break or wear out.

The only way to release yourself from the cycle of replacing faulty, unsafe, or worn out products is to buy high quality products.


Lead-coated Toys of 2007

Lead in paint on toys made in China wasn’t the only story during the 2007 toy recalls, but it was the biggest story. In addition to the 20 million Mattel toys mentioned above, millions of toys made by other brands and under no brand at all were also recalled. It’s easier to relate to iconic brands, though, because we can recognize them so easily. Thomas the Tank Engine wooden trains are a product like that. In June 2007, 1.5 million Thomas & Friends wooden trains and components of 25 types were recalled. These colorful toys were coated in paint that contained lead. Now, to be clear, Thomas & Friends products currently sold are all certified compliant to the new toy safety laws.


Wooden Mite Cars

As an alternative to branded, mass-produced toy vehicles, we carry toys made from bamboo, recycled plastic, and wood. Among our favorites are the little Mites wooden cars and trucks. These are the same size as popular wooden train toys. The Mite cars are made in Vermont from local Eastern white pine and rock maple. The toymaker, Montgomery Schoolhouse, has been making wooden toys for 40 years. Like all other toymakers selling toys in the U.S., their products are also certified compliant to new toy safety laws.


Go-to Organization

ASTRA, the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, works hard to help consumers find quality toys. The members of ASTRA are specialty stores, individually owned neighborhood toy stores. ASTRA urges you to shop at your Neighborhood Toy Store on Neighborhood Toy Store Day, November 10th. Participating stores have entertainment, crafts, donations, or other events scheduled that day. Search for a store near you.

To ensure that you and your child have a positive experience, buy smart in the first place. In ASTRA’s Toy Buying Guide, they suggest that you “Focus on the kind of play a toy encourages, rather than on the features of the toy. (i.e. Think about what the child can do, rather than what the toy can do.)” They give helpful suggestions for each developmental level.


What You Can Do

As with issues of safety, you can ask for certificates, but this only tells you whether a product passed a test in a lab. What you really want to know is whether the product will last long enough to meet your child’s needs. A test doesn’t necessarily answer that question for you.

Shop at a local toy store or baby boutique where you come to know and trust the staff. They are experts in children’s products. As them about the quality of toys and other products before you buy.

Check customer service reports. If you do have a problem with a product, will the store help you solve your problem, or are you out of luck? This customer service site shows Toys R Us has a 7% positive rating. Their lowest score is in Issue Resolution. Ouch.

Check reviews . Start with the bad reviews and look to see how long it lasted for other buyers. Let other parents share their experience with you, and do them the favor of sharing your honest experience with both positive and negative reviews for products and for stores.


Resources

Seth M. Freedman, Melissa Schettini Kearney, and Mara Lederman, “Product Recalls, Imperfect Information, and Spillover Effects: Lessons from the Consumer Response to the 2007 Toy Recalls,” National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2009.

Eric S. Lipton and David Barboza, “As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China,” New York Times, June 19, 2007. “China manufactured every one of the 24 kinds of toys recalled for safety reasons in the United States so far this year, including the enormously popular Thomas & Friends wooden train sets, a record that is causing alarm among consumer advocates, parents and regulators.”

Toy Buying Guide, Your Neighborhood Toy Store (ASTRA)

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Halloween Treat Alternatives

Reverse Trick or Treating cards with fair trade chocolate

Reverse Trick or Treating cards with fair trade chocolate

Before our children are developmentally able to focus on consequences, it’s up to us to help them see alternatives to immediate choices. We can shift focus from GIMME CANDY to things and ideas that will still satisfy in other ways.

I usually welcome my children to have a small amount of Halloween candy. My son has started to realize that he feels very emotional when he has too much sugar. He doesn’t like the feeling of being out of control, so he limits his own candy consumption. His self regulation is a step in the right direction, but I still do what I can to help out. This year, I have more ideas how to divert the candy stream without the result of sad little faces of children deprived of non-nutritive food-like substances.


1. Gifts from the Magic Pumpkin

Nature Mom recently told me the story of the Magic Pumpkin that visits her house each year.

“I had been able to swap out my kids’ collected loot for the first 2 years, but my 5-year old started to catch on last year. So, we changed our tactic and told her we had learned that if we left her collected candy out at night for the Magic Pumpkin to eat, he would leave her something else in its place.

“The idea came from another parent, and I was amazed at how well it went over. We let her pick 3 candies to keep for herself, and she left the rest out for the night. When she fell asleep, we swapped out her candy for a Halloween story book and hair ties.

“I’m hopeful she’ll want to try this again come Halloween. Last year my 4-year old was a willing participant. I think the key is to make the goodies left by the Magic Pumpkin as fun and enticing as candy might be. I love this idea because you can tailor the treats or gifts to your own children.”

Shifts focus from GIMME CANDY
to SWEET MEMORIES OF A NICE HOLIDAY


2. Candy Experiments

If you know your child will end up with a bag of candy, and you want to lower the sugar impact, consider diverting the candy from the usual hand-to-mouth race. You could teach them a little science.

Candy Experiments can lead you through dissolving, melting, baking, smashing, cracking, and otherwise destroying candy in the name of science. You can use a coffee filter and dyed candy for chromatography. Dissolve Skittles to determine color density to make a pretty rainbow of unnatural dyes. And, those with patience can watch chocolate bloom as the fats separate out into little circles. They explain not just the what and how but the why.

If you are in Washington, D.C., this weekend, join them at the USA Science and Engineering Festival to see some of these experiments for yourself.

Shifts focus from GIMME CANDY TO EAT
to WHAT IS THIS STUFF, ANYWAY?


3. Fair Trade Chocolate

I love chocolate. I don’t love the labor issues that come with chocolate. I worry about treating children with a food that other children have suffered to produce.

So, this year my family is Reverse Trick or Treating with a kit we ordered from Global Exchange. When my children go door to door, they will give an information card to people at the first 15 houses so they can learn about fair trade chocolate. There is a piece of chocolate attached to each card as well. Yes, our neighbors expect this kind of thing from us!

Shifts focus from GIMME CANDY
to I CARE ABOUT OTHER CHILDREN IN THE WORLD


4. Family Party

I have been informed by my son that not only will we be having pumpkin soup for Halloween, we will be having orange rolls and sloppy buffalo joes. After one year, this has become a requirement. I’m thrilled to see that his focus for the day is on nutritious food.

In my fantasy world, I also make homemade candy. About a month ago I made a mild, homemade licorice with fennel from our garden. It tasted great (to both adults) and looked wonderful.

That’s the good news.

I didn’t roll it in sugar or flour as the recipes all suggested. So, follows the bad news. I put some of the licorice in mason jar—and it all melted into a solid mass that is far to hard to even extract from the jars. I had saved a small jar to give Nature Mom when I saw her last week, but it is such a sad, solid, sludgy mess that I didn’t want to embarrass myself with it. (She won’t even know this unless she reads the post!)

So, I would take homemade licorice if I: 1) made it fresh, or 2) gave in and rolled it in flour or sugar. I’m thinking I’ll stick with the homemade orange bread rolls with tiny green bread stems.

This year, we will be taking our nutritious holiday food and spending the Saturday night before Halloween with a group of families who (we hope) will enjoy our contributions to a big dinner. Rather than a planned raid of the neighborhood, we’re off to have fun.

Shifts focus from GIMME CANDY
to COMMUNITY FUN

Imports at What Cost? Safety

Baby chewing on plastic ring

Choosing cheap imports can feel better for the wallet at the moment of purchase. When that product is inexpensive at the cost of safety, though, it is your baby who can pay. Injury or worse because of an unsafe baby product is part of the real cost of products that are made not to meet the needs of babies.

Give It To Me Quick

Buying cheap imports that use inferior materials, shortcuts in assembly, or even badly copied designs to keep costs low can be a safety risk for your child.


Safety Issues

For the people who make and sell children’s products, safety is now about testing, compliance, certification, and meeting the standards set in U.S. law, even for Canadians. Imported products are subject to the same safety standards as Made in Canada or Made in USA products—theoretically. In practice, importers don’t always certify safety compliance of their products. No, that isn’t legal, and, yes, they can be reported, but you need to be vigilant that your baby is not the one they are testing on.

The range of safety issues might go from mistakes, like a weak buckle on an otherwise safe product, to quality materials and work, to bad design, to a fake product that appears to be a safe, trusted product.

Some safety standards address materials and quality of work. CPSIA does not allow the use of certain plastic softeners, phthalates, in products that might be mouthed. To meet ASTM standards, every sewn child’s toy must have its seams strength tested. This kind of testing is just basic. Some of the testing required doesn’t quite make sense, though. Until amendments to the CPSIA law were approved, that law would have imposed lead testing on an organic cotton prefold diaper. In this case, safety standards are guarding against non-issues, since there is no scientific evidence that one will ever find lead in a cotton diaper. When there is a potential issue, such as lead in paint on a toy that a child would put in the mouth, safety standards are an important safeguard.

Safety standards do not test for inferior materials. There is no guarantee that cheap fabric won’t rip with regular use, as one fake baby carrier was found to do. Some of the imports that we are seeing in Canada and the U.S. mimic well-known products right down to the brand—that is, right down to the faked brand. Inferior copies of cloth diapers and baby carriers are easy to find on eBay and in the stores of some retailers who prioritized cost over safety. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between these knock-offs and the real thing, but cost could be an indication of a copycat. The Baby Carrier Industry Alliance has even put together a guide to help consumers understand how to recognize a fake baby carrier. It is tough as a consumer to choose wisely unless you buy from trusted retailers or directly from trusted manufacturers.

By far the most important safety issue for your child is design. There is a big difference between a product developed over years of experience and a product introduced last year to fill a category. One example that I have seen repeatedly is the cloth diaper created by a company that specializes in baby bedding, clothing, and matching accessories. The company doesn’t know diapers, but they need one to fill out their line. Often this diaper puts microfiber next to a baby’s skin. If that manufacturer doesn’t know the product category well enough to realize that this will cause a rash, they are creating a safety issue for the babies unfortunate enough to wear those stylish imported diapers.

One terribly sad example of a product created by a company that didn’t understand the product category is the Infantino baby carrier.


Product Recalled: Infantino Baby Sling

In March 2010, Health Canada and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 1 million Infantino “SlingRider” and “Wendy Bellisimo” baby slings imported into the U.S. and 15,000 slings imported into Canada. Three babies are known to have died in these products. The problem wasn’t with slings in general but with a product that was nothing like the traditional baby carriers that have been used around the world for so long. This was a c-shaped bag with a strap. Babies were not held close to the adult. Babies’ airways were not clear. This was not a babywearing product but a shopping bag for a baby. Who paid the price for this heartbreaking tragedy of design and safety? Three babies paid with their lives.


Safe Baby Carriers

At bynature.ca, we carry only baby carrier styles that work for genuine babywearing. For us, the babywearing is the point not the baby carrier. We only choose baby carriers that can be worn safely. We have 3 carriers Made in Canada and 5 carriers Made in USA. We also like to work with manufacturers who understand their products. Many of the inventors and manufacturers of the baby carriers we offer were active in developing the standards all carriers must now meet.

When you look at the baby carriers we offer, look for the Safe Family Promise logos to find those products that meet extraordinarily high standards.


Go-to Organizations

I would normally look to consumer product safety advocates for neutral guidance on a subject like baby product safety. Sadly, I found through the experience of the CPSIA that product safety organizations I had previously trusted were less interested in evidence-based findings than rash alarm. Seeing how those consumer organizations operate close up, I no longer trust them, and I wouldn’t ask you to trust them either.

The good news is, there are trustworthy associations who understand their products and product safety. Most of them are parent inventors or store owners who do what they do because they wanted safer, more natural products for their own babies, and that desire grew into a business.

Soon after the CPSIA was passed into law in the U.S., makers and sellers of handmade toys came together as the Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA) to press for meaningful reform to the law. They, too, were alarmed by product recalls of imported, mass manufactured toys, yet the safety law put in place without exploration of its implications threatened to put them all out of business. They got reforms, so they can still make or sell safe, handmade baby products.

The Baby Carrier Industry Alliance (BCIA) formed in 2010, months after massive baby sling recalls mentioned above, to finalize the work they had already been doing to create a safety standard for baby slings. It is important to us that BCIA has worked not only with the U.S. CPSC but with Health Canada on a public education campaign to help families and healthcare providers understand safe babywearing.

Both of these trade associations represent natural parenting professionals who operate with the safety of babies in mind. I know this because I know them. When I write post after post that it is important to build trust relationships with the people who make your products, I think of some of the people involved in these two trade associations.


What You Can Do

Before you buy, look at a product’s safety record. SaferProducts.gov is a database maintained by the U.S. CPSC where the public can submit and read reports of incidents with consumer products, including sections for baby carriers and toys.

You can also use this database to find cautionary tales. One incident report about cloth diapers tells the story of a product imported from China through co-ops (where consumers get together to meet a minimum order). When the product caused a problem, there was no way to get a response from the manufacturer because there was no relationship to start with.

One of those externalized costs of cheap imports is safety and support. It costs manufacturers and retailers money to ensure that their products meet high standards for safety by creating quality designs, using quality materials, and doing quality work. Quality products often cost more. Sure, you could take a chance on the cheaper products, but do you want to?


Resources

Children’s product safety laws and regulations are more strict in the U.S. than in Canada. Products travel over the border so much that you can often confirm whether a product meets high standards by looking for certification to CPSIA, ASTM (American Society of Testing Materials) standards, or the European Union’s CE marking. If you don’t see markings on the product assuring compliance to safety standards, ask to see the product certifications (in the U.S., this is a CPC, Children’s Product Certificate). Asking for paperwork probably won’t make you popular, but it is certainly your right to know that a baby product you want to buy complies with safety laws.

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Dinner on a Budget

Young family making dinner on a budget

When you are making a healthy dinner on a budget, you balance two needs: keep the quality high and keep the grocery bill low. The more work you are willing to put in and the more you plan in advance, the less you will end up spending and the easier it will be to keep this balance.


Grow It Yourself

Can you plan dinner a year in advance? Sure, sort of. It’s not too early to plan your garden for the year.

It’s nice to eat fresh vegetables, and you may also want to preserve your own food to save money. My mother always made pickles and salsa. We seldom bought these at the store. I guarantee we won’t need to buy mint tea for a long time, but there is nothing else we grew this past season that will cover our needs for the whole year. I aspire to grow enough of one food that I can make it worth the time and effort to preserve a year’s worth from our own garden. I have two ideas for foods I think I could cover out of my garden if I focus our efforts for the year: berry preserves or pickles.

Even if you don’t grow your own food, you can buy foods when they are abundant and prices are low then preserve them yourself. Some farmers markets are in their last few weeks right now.


Buy Ahead

One way to cut costs is to buy food as it is discounted. If you want to take advantage of daily specials (“Must be sold today!”), you will need somewhere to store the food. You don’t even really need to plan in advance, as long as you are willing to do a bit of improvisation once the moment of recipe decision comes.

A small, energy efficient chest freezer costs only a few hundred dollars. Chest freezers run more efficiently than upright freezers, and they freeze most efficiently if they are kept full.


Cook It Yourself

When you’re tired and hungry, you are much less likely to make the less expensive choice for dinner. Just to for comparison, and to encourage you to plan ahead, this is what my family of four pays for a chicken dinner.

  • Eat out chicken dinner, restaurant, $40-50 (if you are lucky)
  • Buy chicken dinner, fast food, $20-30
  • Buy chicken dinner, grocery store, $15-20
  • Buy a cooked chicken, grocery store, $6-8 + another $10 for side dishes for $16-18
  • Buy a raw chicken and cook at home, $5 for 2 chickens (on special) + $5 for tortillas, avocado, cheese, and lettuce for a total of about $10 (and, it lasts for a couple of meals)

I base this on the two chickens I bought this weekend (“Today’s Special”), which provided a great Sunday lunch and dinner for about $10. We didn’t really plan ahead, but we improvised around the best deal available.

Even if you only eat take out food once a week, that can add $100 a month to your food budget. If you actually eat out in a restaurant, you add closer to $200 a month. It doesn’t seem like much at the time, but it all adds up quickly

What you need on those evenings when you are tired and hungry is something you can pull from your freezer and heat up.


Divide Meals

If you need quick, easy to heat and eat meals, make them yourself. Before I was married, I could make a huge pot of soup on the weekend and eat it for a week when I got home late. With four people to feed, we can sometimes get three meals out of one pot of soup or chili or two meals out of a dish of lasagna.

Look at your family’s favorite foods and figure out which are most easily scalable. Then, make a lot, divide it into enough for tonight and later. Freeze the rest in the right amounts for a whole dinner, and you have a very easy meal for another night. It’s your own two-for-one meal deal.

It is possible to be frugal by buying the cheapest foods, but don’t fall into that trap. Eating processed and prepared foods costs you more in health and wellness in the long run. Stick with whole foods, single ingredients that you put together yourself.

Eat well and inexpensively!

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