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Small Businesses Are Being Hurt by New Toy Safety Law

Nancy Cowles’ recent Mission Ahead piece, New Toy Regulation Act to Further Protect Children, resembles the new safety law she defends: overreaching and misguided.

[IMGCAP(1)]I should know. As a board member of the Handmade Toy Alliance, made up of small toy stores and small-batch toy and children’s product manufacturers from across the country, I am acutely aware of the onerous burdens our members now face as a result of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This alliance was formed in reaction to the threat the CPSIA poses to consumer access to our unique handmade toys, organic clothing and children’s goods.

Despite Ms. Cowles’ implication that big money interests are leading the opposition to this law, our members are small or micro businesses, including many parents — even grandparents — who work out of their homes. Our members have based their businesses on safe, natural products, and our product quality and safety record is second to none.

Ms. Cowles’ assertion that toys might actually be “toxic— smears our years of hard work making safe handmade toys and children’s products. By calling our integrity and good corporate citizenship into question, she irreparably damages our reputations by planting seeds of doubt with the general public. Her charges are groundless, but because Ms. Cowles dares us to prove a negative, we are forced unfairly to defend ourselves.

We have been very supportive of risk-based testing. In contrast, the CPSIA creates a rigid regimen of testing that ignores risk and is unaffordable, particularly for small businesses. We have suggested a system of component testing, but the law permits the Consumer Product Safety Commission little flexibility to design such a system. It is a hallmark of the new law to leave the CPSC with no room for discretion. This is one reason for the numerous enforcement stays and stay requests — this is the CPSC’s only tool to blunt the impact of the new law.

Likewise, the CPSC is no longer permitted to determine what presents a real safety risk. Is an organic cotton T-shirt really something we should worry about? If testing of T-shirts is enforced (as anticipated), many of our members will be forced to stop making them. Will anyone be safer as a result?

I do not believe that consumer advocates set out to put our members out of business, but they have succeeded in creating the conditions for our demise. Retroactive application of the new standards against our inventory, unnecessary testing and the nearly impossible one-size-fits-all tracking label requirements are driving our members to shutter their activities in the children’s market. We are not the only victims of this law. It is well-known that resale shops and charities are closing their children’s departments at a time when there is a chronic need for these products.

Sadly, politics has taken over the debate about safety. Those politics depend on branding children’s products as dangerous — and that makes our businesses an endangered species. Ask yourself if you will feel safer when you find your local dressmaker unwilling to make a custom flower girl dress for your daughter because of a “safety— law or when your nephew can’t get the special-needs educational products he needs.

While Ms. Cowles accuses small businesses of “hindering progress— under the new law, nothing could be further from the truth. The law itself has done plenty to hinder progress by paralyzing the CPSC with unrealistic deadlines, conflicting priorities and inflexible requirements. Real progress will only happen when the CPSC has the right and ability to focus its energies on real product safety risks.

We have previously reached out to consumer groups, and we renew our call for consumer advocates to join us in urging Congress to make common sense changes to the law.

There is reason for hope. Congress can still change this law to stop the carnage. We are hopeful that CPSC Chairwoman-nominee Inez Tenenbaum will lead the way. Congress needs to restore sanity to safety administration by allowing the CPSC to regulate based on risk assessment.

The days of deciding whether library books or ballpoint pens present a mysterious danger to the public must come to an end. Our right to make handmade baby teethers and wooden pull toys must be reinstated.

Rob Wilson is vice president of Challenge & Fun, an importer of natural toys, and a board member of the Handmade Toy Alliance.

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