Since early August, more than 20 million toys have been recalled over lead paint concerns and pieces of toys possibly being hazardous to children. Right or wrong, the "Made in China" label on toys has developed a black eye. But a research report released earlier this week reveals that placing all the blame on China's factories and workers is unfounded because more than three-quarters of toy recalls in recent years were triggered by design faults instead of manufacturing defects.
Paul Beamish, Director-Asian Management Institute at The University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business and co-author of the report released by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, says if fingers are to be pointed, they should aim in the right direction. The University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business professor Hari Bapuji, co-authored the report with Beamish. "A lot of the problems are in the design of the products and not those who are manufacturing them," says Beamish. "People are assuming it's all China's fault and that's just not the case. It's a design problem and we wanted to shed a little more light on the issue."
While he agrees China isn't without fault - perhaps with some companies taking shortcuts in the manufacturing of the toys - the majority of the problem comes back to the system of toy design and production. The report says only about 10 per cent of the 550 recalls conducted in the past 20 years by U.S. quality-control authorities were due to manufacturing problems such as lead paint, overheating batteries or inappropriate raw materials. About 77 per cent of all the recalls could be attributed to design flaws.
Beamish says companies such as Mattel, Fisher-Price and others have all promised to ramp up their testing processes to monitor safety and quality of their toys. But he says it will take more than that. "You can do all the tests you want, but if there are flaws in the design it doesn't matter if they're made in Timbuktu or China," says Beamish. As toymakers looking to cut costs have shifted the source of their toys to other countries, there's concern some have not developed the appropriate infrastructure to ensure standards of design and manufacture have been maintained.
Beamish and his fellow researchers analyzed toy recalls initiated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission between 1988 and last month, predicting this year would see the most recalls in the past two decades. Since there have always been recalls, why such a kerfuffle over the past month? Beamish says it has to do with the product in question. "You have a recall on T-shirts, no one cares," he says. "But when you're dealing with potential health hazards, and in this case affecting children, people pay attention." As the fiscally focused holiday shopping season nears, and toymakers continue to step up efforts to safeguard their products with consumers, it's too early to tell what the fallout will be but Beamish feels the ‘Make in China" label will survive.