SOI 2013 - Safety First?

Distributors Becoming Increasingly Educated About Product Safety

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Product SafetyDistributors are increasingly becoming educated about product safety despite some client apathy about the issue.

Amid a rash of recalls involving products ranging from children's apparel and lunch totes to water bottles and glass drinkware, distributors and suppliers are increasingly feeling the weight of expectations from corporate America. Indeed, companies not only need to meet new compliance and safety standards, but also ensure that their brands and logos are protected.

In an all-out effort to be accountable for and eliminate any threat from the products they distribute to end-users, companies are coming to distributors and suppliers with more safety concerns and mandates than ever before. That's tough to manage, particularly when the industry is straining under a growing list of chemicals and components forbidden in product manufacturing.

And product safety concerns in general have been compounded by a concern for greater social compliance in light of incidents like the factory collapse in Bangladesh in April, which was preceded by a fire at another factory five months earlier. Compliance in general "is more in vogue" in today's marketplace, says Mark Trotzuk, president of Vancouver-based Boardroom Eco Apparel (asi/40705).

"More and more, every corporation just needs to have a proper paper trail," Trotzuk says, "because it is their brand that's worth billions of dollars" on the line.

The disconnect, though, which is highlighted in State of the Industry data, is that a majority of distributors say their clients aren't asking about product safety. In fact, only 13.1% of distributors in this year's survey said their clients are inquiring about the safety and compliance of the promotional products they purchase.

For industry companies, however, that 13% is noisy enough to make the matter practically vital. Trotzuk's company, which focuses on apparel, relies on top certification companies like Blue Sign, long considered the gold standard of textile certification, to certify that a factory manufactures products safely and also offers safe working conditions.

But it's not just the end-product that's important to assess. Following a product's production path is vital. It's crucial for distributors and suppliers to request testing of components before they're assembled, Trotzuk says. That's the part "which people still don't get," he adds. "It's no use having components like fabric, buttons and threads manufactured and then test them after they're put together in a garment."

At that point, if something tests positive for a banned chemical or is deemed unsafe, how do you know where in the supply chain you should pinpoint the error? Trotzuk asks.

But aside from making sure every supplier a distributor buys from is compliant, it can still be tough for distributors to make sure their products meet evolving state and federal standards. The problem, says David Levine, co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council – a public policy group focused on sustainable business, based in Washington, D.C. – is that the country lacks a central database for banned substances nationwide and state by state, as well as a list of recalled products. Levine's organization has been pushing for this, but so far hasn't seemed to get the buy-in it needs from the public and private sectors. More to the point, many in the industry say too many distributors and suppliers pay little attention to how important product safety is. And while product liability lies with both distributors and suppliers, according to legal experts, the real responsibility often sits with the manufacturer. In fact, a recent ASBC poll of 500 small-business owners found that nine out of 10 "believed chemical manufacturers should be responsible for ensuring chemicals are safe," Levine says.

That shouldn't let distributors off the hook, however, say Levine and others. If anything it should inspire them to speak up more about product safety. What that also demands is more transparency, Levine says. For distributors, that means asking suppliers if they review their factories, test their products thoroughly (including product components and dyes), and can produce copies of manufacturing safety reports.

But it's not enough to have a dialogue just with suppliers. As the middlemen in the marketplace, it's crucial for distributors to educate their clients about what makes a product safe, which products might be deemed hazardous to children, and what safety certifications are the industry's gold standard. It's also crucial to dedicate at least one staff member to researching the latest product safety regulations within the states in which a distributor sells, particularly since new laws are passed throughout the year. Distributors should also ask suppliers if they have a dedicated team member. That way it's being covered on both ends.

The real key, say industry experts, is to then connect – via distributors – the needs of each specific client to a supplier best suited for that job, based upon a client's needs. Ultimately, it's up to distributors and their salespeople to find out a client's intentions for the promotional products they purchase – who is going to receive the item in the campaign and whether a product may get into the hands of a child under the age of 12. If distributors know who will be receiving products, then they can more clearly fulfill safety and compliance standards for those items.

"As a general rule, if an account executive learns more about their client's objectives, they can ask the right questions to suppliers to make sure they are matching safe and effective products from trusted sources with the best promotional idea for their customer," says Marc Simon, CEO of Top 40 distributor Halo Branded Solutions (asi/356000).

Certainly that falls in line with surveys from the ASBC. Key to their polling, says Levine, were messages from small-business owners saying, "you've got to help us out here. As suppliers you need to provide us with transparency," Levine says. With that, he adds, "then a small business can make a choice about suppliers when looking at some information across the board."

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