Mattel’s recall of 19 million Chinese-made toys in the US because of safety concerns including lead paint and dangerously small magnets, raises a few questions. This story shows some massive failures in basic, well-known, safety standards.
One of them is how much attention Mattel pays to its own contracts and products. Product safety isn’t a new science. Barbie, their best known product, could be risking her neck, just being in the same stores as some of the things now on the market.
Commentators in this New York Times article are a bit skeptical of this marketing disaster. There’s a logic chain here, and it’s worth closer scrutiny.
In discussing the Mattel recall, first consider the following points:
1. A toy company contracts to produce overseas for low costs.
2. The company has been in business for decades, and is a global giant in the industry.
3. The product safety requirements for toys are so well known, and so basic, that nobody in Western countries is under any illusions about them.
4. All manufacturers usually have their own inbuilt quality controls, both at production and marketing levels.
With Mattel outsourcing its production to China, now consider the ramifications for the company:
1. Low cost production, with or without scrutiny? If not, why not?
2. Why wasn’t Mattel aware of the defects from day one of production? 19 million units is a pretty long production process time.
3. The company says the products were made in May-July of this year, and that the lead paint was substituted by a subcontractor, not the Chinese contractor. So who’s liable? The legal issues don’t look very clear.
4. Mattel says it began to investigate in July when one of its European retailers noticed the lead paint. Meaning there were at least three months inclusive in which the products weren’t being checked, and it took someone not even in the production chain to find the problem.
Now, a few other ramifications. Chinese-made products have been condemned for their various failings. It is now approaching the level of a witch hunt, with some very protectionist, and very unsurprising, overtones coming from American manufacturers.
The administration hasn’t been shy about coming up with expedient statements about China as and when it feels the need. The Mattel incident and its spin is somewhat questionable. The spin has turned a potentially serious problem with a manufacturers’ quality controls into the Yellow Peril.
So what’s Mattel’s standard of safety checks for its own products? Safety standards are laws, and manufacturers must comply with those standards.
Of all toy manufacturers on Earth, Mattel, one of the oldest, would know that. There’s no indication on available information that Mattel was actively operating its own safety checks prior to being informed of the lead paint defect.
If it was, they weren’t working. The size of components in kid’s toys is also not a new issue. It’s regulated, and those regulations are enforced, vigorously. Quality control should have seen that on the drawing board, let alone in production.
The NYT article mentions operating margins in context with quality issues, and points out the pressure placed on Chinese manufacturers regarding costs. To operate, the Chinese producers also have to be able to make money, and it sounds like those pressuring those margins are creating risks in terms of product quality.
Mattel hasn’t been accused of breaching any laws, even if its performance leaves rather a lot to be desired in terms of best practice. What it has also done is show that the obsession with volumes and cost creates massive potential problems that never needed to happen in the first place. The lapse in quality control, particularly such a serious one, is bordering on inexcusable.
In strict fairness to Mattel, neither regulators nor US retailers seem to have noticed the defects, either. That's another gaping hole in the quality issue. How are safety standards supposed to be applied, if nobody's looking?
This incident does add a bit of perspective to the quality of Chinese goods debate. Every household on Earth is now awash with Chinese-made products. The products being vilified represent a small percentage of the output. Those products now appear to be being manufactured strictly on a bottom-line basis, cheap and nasty, because of buyer behavior, as much as any shoddiness on the part of manufacturers.
Maybe before the pot starts calling the kettle anything else, we might just check out who the villains are.
For more information and backgrounders, see Nathalie C’s articles on the Mattel and Fisher Price recalls, and links.