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)

More in this series

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