The Myths and Misconceptions of Chinese Toys

Many misconceptions are swirling about Chinese toys.

Nov. 23, 2007 Special to — -- It has been a long, hot summer and a difficult autumn for the toy industry, with an incredible amount of media coverage and political interest -- on both sides of the Pacific -- in the product design and quality issues that have become apparent. As we enter into the 2007 holiday season, I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide some perspective on all this from the standpoint of someone who cares deeply about the toy industry and who has been a part of it all his life.

There have been a number of product recalls, for a variety of reasons, and because of them, both the U.S. toy industry and our Chinese suppliers have taken it on the chin. Some of this is deserved, but a lot is not. As inevitably happens with issues involving our children and their health and safety, a lot of mistaken information has been passed around and blown up beyond all recognition.

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Let me make it very clear: the U.S. toy industry puts first, and has always put first, the health and safety of the children who play with our toys. Even one injury is too many, and the industry, through our Toy Industry Association, is doing exactly the right thing to ensure that our products are as safe as they can possibly be. I am not an apologist for the toy industry or for China, nor an official spokesman for either; but I would like to straighten out what I think are some pretty broadly held misconceptions.

Misconception: Product design and quality issues are endemic in the toy industry. Fact: All of the products recalled so far in 2007 amount to about nine-tenths of 1% of the 3 billion toys sold in the United States each year. There are many hundreds of toy brands (500 in the Toy Industry Association), but only four accounted for 75% of all the products recalled. And just two of those four accounted for about 54% of the toys recalled for excess lead in their paint.

Misconception: China is one of the main culprits in all these recalls; it is their fault that our children are in danger. Fact: That is simply not true. Companies manufacture, import and sell products; countries do not. The Consumer Product Safety Commission rightly holds those who order the toys and bring them into the country responsible for the safety of those toys. Equally important is the fact that about 74% of the toys recalled were for design-related issues, not manufacturing-related ones. The designs are the primary responsibility of those who order the toys, not only of those who manufacture them. Let us take responsibility for our actions and not blame others.

Misconception: China is responsible for the loss of American jobs in the toy industry. Fact: Again, not true; China is simply the latest country where production has concentrated so that its cheaper labor costs can translate into lower prices to consumers. Toy production started moving out of the United States over 50 years ago, going first to Japan, then to Taiwan and Korea and other Asian countries. It was in the mid-1980s that China began its export of toys.

Misconception: The toy industry is so focused on reducing costs that it is willing to use factories that mistreat their workers. Fact: The worldwide toy industry is an acknowledged leader in ensuring that workers in its suppliers' factories are treated fairly. The International Council of Toy Industries' (ICTI) Code of Business Practices, one of the first such codes in the world, obligates its members to treat workers fairly. Through its ICTI CARE Process, a comprehensive system has been developed to ensure that factories adhere to the standards established by the Code.

In the past three years, nearly 1,200 factories employing over a million workers have entered the program. Its Seal of Compliance, issued to factories who have achieved those standards, are accepted by just about all of the major toy retailers in the U.S. There is still much to do, as this is a long journey that brings retailers, brands, civil society and government together. For now, we must continue to monitor and audit all factories in the system, but our primary objective is to build capacity through education programs. Our stated goal is one global standard for the ethical manufacturing of children's products.

An important point about the U.S. toy industry's safety standards--they are voluntary, for the most part, but are the best in the world, widely emulated by other countries. By the time the U.S. Toy Industry Association's Conformity Assessment program is in full operation next year, the U.S. will also have the best safety testing standards and procedures in the world.

My final thought is this: Why shouldn't there be one worldwide set of safety standards and safety testing procedures? That way, all countries would adhere to one proven standard, so that we could assure parents everywhere that the toys they give to their children are safe. If I could have one wish granted, it would be this one: that all children have safe toys to play with--no matter where they live.