Management - Ensuring Safe Products

What Distributors Need To Know

Ensuring Safe ProductsWith a recent increase in state and federal regulations – not to mention a heightened concern among end-buyers – promotional product safety is as important as it’s ever been. What’s more, distributors may bear greater responsibility for an unsafe product than they might think, according to Shamini Peter, director of compliance and imports for Top 40 firm Axis Promotions (asi/128263).

“If you’re a distributor and you buy apparel from any company, and then move it to a decorator, who’s the manufacturer in that process?” she asks. “Is it the supplier, the decorator, the client?”

The answer, according to Peter, is the distributor. “The distributor directed the decorator to put the decoration on it, and moved it to the client,” she says. “So, in the eyes of the law, the distributor is the manufacturer.”

Peter constantly reminds distributors, along with her company’s own sales reps, that product safety isn’t an option. “It’s not just a nice thing to have – it’s the law,” she says. “If you don’t ensure your products are safe for the consumer, it becomes a really expensive venture to recall, and it puts your client’s brand in jeopardy.”

With that sobering reality in mind, here are some steps for making sure every promotional item you distribute is safe and compliant.

Become Familiar With Regulations
U.S. federal safety regulations that pertain to promotional items are primarily geared toward children, according to Peter. The most notable is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which was passed by Congress in 2008 and is enforced by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The act introduced new standards for the acceptable level of certain substances in apparel, personal care products, toys, school supplies and a number of other items.

The CPSC also has Small Parts Regulations in place for products intended for children younger than three years of age. While Peter believes it’s necessary to closely review these federal regulations, she thinks scrutinizing state rules is just as important. Each state has adopted its own set of safety guidelines, such as Proposition 65 (known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986) in California, and the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act in Illinois.

“You need to know where the product is actually going to be distributed to the final consumer,” Peter says. “Is it in your state? California? Illinois? An international location? That’s important because while there aren’t many federal regulations in place, the states have taken it upon themselves to have regulations to protect their citizens.”

Ask About Recipients
Peter says the most important question a sales rep should ask their clients before processing an order is “Who is the intended audience?”

“If the audience is children, then you know there are certain protocols you need to follow in terms of testing, whether it’s federal or state regulations,” she says. “It should be tracked closely. If you’re moving children’s products to a decorator, you have to have a secondary tracking number to track just the imprinting of the product in case there are chemical contents above regulation.”

Even if the promotional items aren’t intended for kids, Peter says they may still wind up in children’s hands at certain end-buyer events. That’s why she stresses the need to learn as much about the event as possible – namely, whether children will be in attendance.

“Then, you would look at the products – whether any of them are what I consider elevated-risk products,” she says. “That would include children’s products, toys, drinkware as regulated by the FDA, anything that contains foods, anything that goes against the skin like jewelry or tattoos, anything that can go in the mouth, liquids like hand sanitizers, and lip balm.”

If you’re dealing with these kinds of items, it’s crucial to partner with an experienced and reputable supplier – one who understands regulations and works with the correct testing agencies.

Michael Bowers, account manager for Bowers & Associates (asi/144035), agrees that it’s essential to track any product that could end up in a child’s hands. “With that comes labeling requirements and making sure that you have the country of origin and tracking information on the product, should there ever be a recall issue,” he says. “I think that’s a big thing that a lot of the industry is missing. On the child products, they blow right by that one.”

Require Proper Documentation
It’s the distributor’s responsibility to ask suppliers – especially those who operate overseas – for the necessary safety documentation before placing an order, Bowers says.

“You’re reading all these stories about Bangladesh and the factories over in India that are getting shut down. There are a lot of social compliance and environmental issues,” he says. “The bottom line is you want to know who your suppliers are partnering with.”

Larger distributors, Bowers concedes, probably have an overseas office that can closely monitor safety protocols. But 90% of industry distributors don’t have that luxury. So what can be done? “The first step is to find a trusted supplier who has gone through QCA certification,” Bowers says. “Then develop a questionnaire for them on how to source responsibly.”

Bowers thinks there are clear benefits to doing business with large suppliers with overseas departments that engage in safety certification. “Go to suppliers like Leed’s (asi/66887) or Prime (asi/79530) that have their own division and say, ‘I want some information on this factory. Send me an audit report,’” he says.

This pre-qualification, as Bowers calls it, involves a host of requirements. “If a factory can’t produce an audit that shows it’s been certified, it’s treating its employees the right way, it’s met cleanliness and safety standards, then we don’t want to move forward with trying to source a product through them,” he says.

Consider Independent Testing
Bowers says many of his clients, particularly the larger ones, aren’t satisfied simply with pre-production product safety testing. “What can happen is the factory puts all its bells and whistles into the pre-production sample, and that slides through testing fine, but then you have to have some checks and balances on the back end,” he says.

In fact, the big corporations – like Coke, McDonald’s and Disney – want multiple tests done. “Not only do they want the testing done on the pre-production sample,” Bowers says, “they want a product pulled from the production run and they want that tested as well.”

Bowers utilizes an independent laboratory for that kind of testing, and he recommends other distributors do the same. “Some of the big ones are SGS and Intertek – third-party, independent laboratories that will set standards for a product,” he says. “That way, you have something outside your supplier and outside the distributor.”

Why is it so important to conduct this kind of independent testing on the back end? Bowers offers up an example. “Let’s say you’re doing a duffel bag that needs to have a certain fire rating on the material,” he says. “It’s easy to go and get material to run the pre-production sample that checks out. But when they run 5,000 or 10,000 of them, how is there any accountability that the factory is using that same lot of material on the production run?”

In increasingly common cases like this, one level of testing, Bowers says, just won’t cut it.

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