Thursday, February 12, 2009

So We're Having a Baby

The truth is that I lead two lives. On one hand, I'm a product developer--I spot the trends, find the answers, and get products on the shelf at the right price. I enjoy my work immensely. It's challenging, risky and often very rewarding. But outside of the bubble of product development I'm a parent. And when I tell other parents what I do, I'm often riddled with questions--not about the joys of the creative process, or how cool it is to get free samples, but the alarming and ever-growing list of safety concerns about the products surrounding our families.

Parents have been barraged with exposes in the past year, leading to a new level of awareness among consumers about product safety. Slowly, they are coming to realize what most people in the industry have known for decades: very little is done to monitor, test, and protect against the sale of harmful goods in the US. The truth seems outrageous, and the shocking examples keep piling up:
  • On August 2, 2007, Fisher-Price recalled approximately 967,000 toys, including Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and other licensed characters. In addition, on August 14, 2007, Mattel recalled approximately 253,000 toy "Sarge" cars. On June 13, 2007, RC2 Corporation recalled approximately 1.5 million "Thomas and Friends" wooden railway toys. There also have been a number of smaller recalls for a variety of children's products this year.
  • Dozens of environmental health organizations in the United States and Canada are calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of a chemical, bisphenol A - or BPA - in food and beverage containers, including baby bottles. They say a new study found that, when exposed to heat, baby bottles release a chemical that, researchers say, has been linked to obesity, diabetes and developmental problems in lab animals. This is still under debate.
  • During the past decade, phthalates have come under fire for their threat to the developing human reproductive system, particularly in young boys. Phthalates can slowly leach from products, and children typically ingest them by hand-to-mouth contact, or by chewing on a toy. California has passed a law banning the sale of these products ahead of nation-wide rulings by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and most large retailers pledged last year to cease selling products with phthalates by Jan. 1; some phased them out in advance. Major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and Target last year began removing children's products with phthalates from their shelves nationwide.

The first question most parents ask is, "Why are they allowed to sell this stuff?" The presumption among consumers has been that products are inherently safe, and that there must be some oversight already in place. What they are now learning is that product safety in the US is reactionary. Once a problem manifests, and the source is found, we have tools in place to recall or remove harmful products from the shelves. This is the status quo. Outraged parents say that's ridiculous, unbelievable and completely unacceptable! Why is this allowed to happen?

The simple answer is that the market is driven by consumers and their values in regard to product purchases. The market has been heavily focused on cost-cutting and marginalization to achieve the pricing values that consumers have come to expect. Our eyes have been on the bottom line. The type of structure that would need to be in place to guarantee the safety of products before they hit the shelves is simply cost-prohibitive. Currently, we reserve this special treatment only for the things that can kill us rather than just harm us--medical equipment, electronics, pharmaceuticals, etc. The extra attention is reflected by the relatively high cost of these items.

As consumer values change, the market will change to reflect them. If we're willing to accept higher prices, then there will be more accountability. How that accountability is enforced will take time to evolve, but individual businesses will respond if they want to stay ahead of the curve. Americans have always valued honesty and integrity. Proactive brands will benefit from that perception during a time when consumers aren't sure who to trust. And in the end, the proof will be in the pudding, or rather, the prices.

As a product developer, I'll guide my clients to make the most responsible choices the market will bear. As a mom, I hope I'm happy with the results.

For a list of Lead-Recalls from the CDC click here
For a guide to BPA-free baby bottles click here
For environmental, health and safety info about BPA click here

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