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Retailer Reporting: Something for Nothing?

Over ten years ago, the CPSC compliance staff negotiated an agreement with Wal-Mart that has grown over the years into what is now known as the retailer reporting policy. Under the agreement, Wal-Mart agreed to file weekly reports with the CPSC documenting safety issues reported to its stores about products it sold. This reporting gave the agency important insights into the range of safety issues the world’s largest retailer was seeing. It allowed the agency to get an early heads-up on potential safety issues before they matured into “substantial product hazards.” And Wal-Mart got some protection from allegations that it had failed to report substantial product hazards to the agency.

Because this was such a win-win for both the agency and the company, other large retailers and then several large manufacturers soon began asking to participate in the program as well. In response, the agency expanded the program over the years. However, several years ago, the retailer reporting program was put on hold.

The agency staff has now decided to revise the program. Only selected companies will be “invited” to participate. The revised program makes very clear that participation in the program does not provide a substitute for or otherwise impact any reporting requirements under Section 15(b) of the law. However “consideration” may be given to participating companies should they be faced with subsequent enforcement actions for failure to report. The confidentiality protections applying to Information submitted under Section 15(b) of the law would not apply to these reports.

The staff believes that these changes make the program more transparent and answer long-standing questions about how the program operates. That is certainly true. But the changes also raise several other questions as well. For example, the selective nature of the program and the “consideration”, if any, given to participants does raise troubling fairness issues,  A company wishing to participate and frozen out of the program will have little recourse in challenging the decision of some invisible staffer. What kind of consideration will be available to some but not others?

But more basically, the changes raise the question of why any company should bother to participate. When I raised that question, when I was still a Commissioner, the answer I got was “that it is the right thing for companies to do.” Perhaps there are companies who will find the CPSC staff “invitation” irresistible. (I assume that there will be no measure of bullying associated with these invitations.)  However, there may be others who believe that the effort involved and the benefits to be gained are not worth it. In this case the agency will lose out on an important source of information that could help it identify risks as they come up over the horizon.

However, the biggest concern is a process one. The program has been in place for over ten years. Although it was initiated by the staff, it has grown over the years and it has consumed considerable staff resources. Changes of this magnitude should be placed before the Commission for explanation and approval in a public meeting. The program’s role in gathering useful information should be better explained and it should be part of the agency’s annual operating plan. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the program and the changes being made, this is something that Commissioners should consider and approve, not delegate to staff.

Debbie Downer Goes to the Super Bowl?

The spectacle that is the super bowl is for some (including me) as much about the ads as it is about football.  On this day after the big game, the morning talk shows offered up various commentators’ lists of the best and worst of those advertisements.  One ad that seemed to show up on everyone’s worst ad list is the “Make Safe Happen” ad sponsored by Nationwide Insurance.  Even one of my heroines, Lenore Iskenazy, in her Free Range Kids blog, tagged it as the worst super bowl ad.

For the benefit of the maybe ten people in the country not watching the super bowl, this ad featured a child musing about all the things he would not be able to do—learn to ride a bike, fly, get married–because he had died in an accident. Was the ad provocative? Yes.  Did it get people’s attention?  By all means.  Did it highlight an important issue that gets only passing attention from many?   It did.  And I believe that Nationwide deserves praise for its courage in running the ad.

As Nationwide points out in its response to the ad’s critics, “preventable injuries around the home are the leading cause of childhood deaths in America.”  As a CPSC commissioner I saw, first-hand and every day, the tragedies caused by accidents in the home that were entirely preventable.  Shining a light on risks such as accidental drowning and tipping furniture serves as a reminder to all of us that accidents often happen in places where we feel the safest—our homes—and can happen in the blink of an eye and when we least expect it. Getting this reminder from a child who has died brings home with real impact the fact that many of the worst accidents happen to our children.

Some may say that the ad somehow suggests that parents who have suffered these tragedies are to blame for not being careful enough or that these accidents point to the need for more governmental involvement in how we raise our children. Not so. The ad sought to build awareness and awareness is the first step in solving a problem that, as parents, we must address in the way that is best for our own families.

Shopping the Global E-Mall, Round 2

In my last post, I discussed the growing phenomenon of e-commerce sales directly to consumers from foreign (Chinese) manufacturers. My concern is that the regulatory stance of the CPSC—asserting that a foreign manufacturer is legally responsible for compliance with all U.S. safety standards when a U.S. consumer buys a product directly from that manufacturer—is both naïve and unenforceable.

Therefore, I was interested to see the announcement last week from the CPSC that it has entered into a voluntary agreement with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce direct sales company, to work with the agency to try to monitor its platforms for dangerous products.  Kudos to the agency for negotiating this agreement, as modest as it is.

According to press reports, Alibaba handles more e-commerce business than and eBay Inc. combined and, as a platform for third parties, it controls as much as 80 per cent of the Chinese e-commerce business.  Obviously, Alibaba can be a potent ally in policing the marketplace for unsafe products.

Looking at the reported details of the agreement, it is not clear whether it will prove to advance consumer safety in the global e-mall or merely serve as a fig leaf to which the parties can point to show they are doing something.  Alibaba has apparently agreed to block sales of up to 15 recalled products upon request from the CPSC.  Since a substantial number of the over-400 recalls the CPSC does each year are of products from China, there should be no problem finding candidates for this list.  All concede that this agreement is not enforceable. It remains to be seen how aggressive Alibaba will be carrying it out over time.

More interesting is the company’s agreement to make available information about safety requirements to importers into the United States.  U.S. safety requirements are not easily understood, especially those issued since 2009 in response to the CPSIA—see the labyrinthine regulations dealing with testing and certification for examples. Any way to get information to those who are honestly trying to comply can do nothing but help.

Whether this agreement is a modest, but effective first step or just another counterfeit product remains to be seen.  Stay tuned.

Shopping the Global E-Mall

While holiday shopping memories may have faded to a blur, holiday gift returns and shopping for bargains are very much a part of the January ritual.  That is why a Wall Street Journal article that showed up right at the end of the year has stayed in my mind.

The article, by Dennis Berman, examines the growing phenomenon of e-commerce sales directly between Chinese manufacturers and global consumers. Berman’s piece provides a fascinating peek at China’s ability to merchandize goods–ranging from electronics to household products to wedding dresses–directly to consumers anywhere in the world using the web, global transportation networks and consumers’ increasing comfort level with and demand for products that transcend national boundaries.

For those of us who are concerned about consumer safety, the implications of this change in consumer buying patterns are obvious.  And, as a former safety regulator, I am troubled by the U.S. Government’s awkward and clumsy approach to the issue.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission has outstanding a proposed rule to address the safety of imported goods but that proposal actually adds costs, burdens and bureaucracy to the import process while adding little if any added safety. While the proposal creates detailed new rules for manufacturers who import products for sale in the U.S. through traditional distribution methods such as retail stores, it treats foreign manufacturers who sell directly to U.S. consumers almost as an afterthought.

Here is some background.  Since 2008, the law has required that importers of consumer products certify that their products meet U.S. safety standards, including testing requirements. Those certificates must be available for inspection by the CPSC upon demand.  In addition, the agency established a program that targets shipments for inspection based on a risk assessment methodology that includes criteria (such as type of product, identity of shipper, and location of shipper) which, in the agency’s judgment, have proven to be indicative of high-risk shipments.  This program has been supplemented with aggressive work with the Chinese government to address the serious safety issues that were identified in the last decade.

The agency now proposes changes to this system but the changes focus almost exclusively on importers who bring product into the U.S. for sale through traditional distribution channels.  The agency seeks to establish a system under which every certificate of an imported product must be filed electronically with Customs at least 24 hours before the product is presented for entry into the United States.  The proposed regulation also expands the data requirements of the certificates, and imposes on common carriers, such as Federal Express and UPS, the requirement to file (and be responsible for the accuracy of) certificates when they act as importers of record for their clients. The agency also proposes to build the capability to “look” at every shipment entering the U.S. and would fund the increased staff that this will take by imposing a fee on importers.  I have discussed these issues in the past.

While this proposal certainly increases the regulatory reach of the CPSC, I am not certain that it actually increases the safety of the marketplace. I question the effectiveness—and the fairness–of imposing on UPS the job of policing the safety practices of the global supply chain.  I do not understand why billions of certificates for perfectly safe products need to be retained under penalty of law for years when much of the same information is required to be retained under other CPSC regulations.  I do not understand why expensive new computer and administrative systems have to be established by importers to file these certificates with Customs when it is unlikely that the vast majority of certificates will ever be looked at by the CPSC.  I do not understand why the agency wishes to upset a system that seems to be working—except to scratch the itch to push its regulatory boundaries (and, perhaps, its budget as well).

But none of these measures address what happens when a foreign manufacturer sells a product directly to a U.S. consumer.   While the proposed rule recognizes that, in this case, the U.S. consumer is technically the importer of the product, it would be impossible to impose a requirement on the individual consumer to certify the safety of the product that is being purchased.  Therefore, the regulation solves the problem by putting onto the foreign manufacturer the legal requirement to certify that the product it is selling meets all U.S. safety standards before shipping it to the U.S. consumer.

How this requirement can be enforced, especially against a company that may have no presence in the U.S, is conveniently left unaddressed.  But the arm of the U.S. government is neither long enough nor strong enough to reach so far.  As an enforcement device, this requirement seems to be an illusion.

The regulation fails to adequately address many of the issues that are implicitly raised in Berman’s article.  First, and right out front, is the question of personal choice and responsibility:  if I knowing chose to purchase a product from China, do I assume the risk for any safety defects that may exist?

The nimble quality of the e-commerce marketplace means that little inventory is stored, that product is sourced from suppliers as needed and send to consumers around the world.  That is the economic reality.  Unfortunately the regulatory reality has not kept pace with that economic reality.  And, in large part, that is the fault of regulators.

Here is an example.  Assume that Europe and the United States have similar but not identical safety standards for the same product (a very real-world assumption).  If the Chinese company gets an order for an identical individual product from both an American and a European consumer, is it likely that the Chinese factory will do two separate tests and certify that the same product being shipped to the European and American consumers satisfy the two regulatory requirements?  What if the order came from Mexico? Or Australia? Can they realistically be expected to know, and certify to, the differing requirements around the world?  At what point will the Chinese factory just ship the product out without thinking about safety?  If safety standards were aligned, would there not be more market incentive to design products that meet those standards? Perhaps so. Yet, practical and realistic efforts to harmonize safety standards have not been encouraged by U.S. regulators.

These companies are selling products to consumers in countries all over the world—countries with differing safety standards and legal requirements. Rather than imposing a legal requirement that cannot be enforced, would it not make more sense to try to reach consensus with other stakeholders, including the Chinese, about what should be required?  The CPSC has made good strides in working with the Chinese Government but these efforts can be greatly enhanced—to the benefit not only of U.S. consumers but also of Chinese consumers as well.  Minimal standards for commonly recognized hazards such as exposure to heavy metals, flammability of fabrics, and choking hazards to children could be established and these standards would find their way into the products that are shipped around the world. Then we could build on that progress.

If a global e-commerce marketplace is our reality, then we need to rethink how our country’s safety regulations fit within that reality.  So far the CPSC has not shown itself at being very adept at thinking globally.

‘Tis The Season

While perhaps you can ignore the holiday decorations that sprout up all over America’s malls right after Halloween, you absolutely know the holidays are here when the various citizens groups and media outlets begin publishing their lists of “deadly”, “dangerous” or “toxic” toys pulled from reports 635515781002297417-D12-PRIMES-GRINCH-30-3881065with ominous titles like “Trouble in Toyland!”.  Like much about the holidays, these lists are annual traditions.

The holidays must be here because this week has seen a spate of such news stories, with one national network story declaring “that toys are becoming more dangerous”.  Since this conclusion runs counter to my recollections from my days as a CPSC commissioner, I checked out the latest CPSC report on toy-related deaths and injuries, published last month.  The study concluded that there was no statistically significant upward trend in the number of toy-related injuries in 2013, or indeed for the proceeding five years.

Several of the news stories have focused on ride-on toys, such as wagons, tricycles and, in particular, scooters as being especially dangerous and a growing risk to children.  But, the CPSC report did not find any upward trend in the injury numbers for these products over the past few years.  Scooters became wildly popular with children in the mid- to late-1990’s and, as usage of the product grew in these years, so did injuries. From 1999 to 2001 there was an alarming increase in the number of scooter injuries and deaths.   The injury rate for these products, however, has stabilized since the early part of the century, and the CPSC does not see a statistically significant increase in its numbers.  Parsing through all these statistics does not make for a good news story so the viewer is left with an entirely different impression—that injuries caused from scooters and other ride-on toys are on the rise.

My point is not to suggest no child will ever be injured playing with a toy or riding on a scooter.  To the contrary, the statistics show that injuries do happen.  And, of course, we all need to be on the lookout for toys that do not meet federal safety standards or are defective; the CPSC is always vigilant in removing such products from the market.  But we should also keep two other things in mind. First, as the CPSC itself notes, the injuries it complies may be related to but are not necessarily caused by the toy—a big difference. And more importantly, how toys are used, rather than how they are made or designed, more often than not determine whether an injury will occur.  It is this aspect of toy safety—consumer education–which the media and consumer watchdogs seem to leave to others, and that is a shame.

In one of the media reports, one of the groups publicizing its dangerous toy list said that until we can trust that toys are safe, “parents need to watch out for common hazards when shopping for toys.”  Oh, please . . .until we can trust that toys are safe?!.  My response, as a parent, is that I will never cede to others my responsibility to think about whether something I give my child is a hazard.

Since toy-related injuries have remained relatively stable over the years, my challenge to those who make up these lists and report on them is this:  Rather than seeking attention through scare tactics, why not spend more time talking with consumers about the safe use of toys, about buying age appropriate toys for children, about keeping toys with small parts and other choking hazards out of the reach of small children and about using appropriate safety gear when getting on that scooter.  Why not work affirmatively and constructively to push the injury trends downward?

The CPSC will soon vote on its spending priorities for the current fiscal year. Perhaps an effort to channel the creativity of the toy industry, the media and those who say they represent the public into a public education effort to remind all of us that safety—especially with respect to children– is a shared responsibility would be a worthwhile undertaking.  Perhaps such a sustained joint effort could actually reduce the number of toy-related injuries.  And wouldn’t that be a happy holiday?

Seeking the Promise in Compromise

In an especially insightful column this past week, political analyst Michael Gerson noted that often policy-making is as much about methods as it isimages about outcomes. The manner in which things get resolved can often leave them unresolved or at least leave them festering.   He, of course, was talking about the dynamics between the President and the Congress and the brewing ideological storm looming on the horizon about to be seeded to the saturation point by aggressive use of executive orders. Yet, as I read his column, I could not help but wonder what would happen if, in one small corner of government, public servants actually worked hard and honestly to seek compromise rather than steamroll through an ideological result because they can.  Of course I was thinking about the CPSC.  Oh, how naïve of me.

After four years when little effort was made to accommodate differing views in order to reach consensus, new leadership and a roster of four out of five commissioners new to the agency offered the potential for real change. And an early effort by Chairman Kaye and Commissioner Mohorovic gave hope to the notion that perhaps that new territory—the elusive middle ground—could be profitably explored.  Kaye and Mohorovic were both asked by Senator Thune during their confirmation hearing for concrete plans to reduce testing costs and burdens currently being imposed by the agency, and the two put their heads together and came up with a joint response to the Senator.  Up to this point, the Commission has done nothing except talk about how hard it is to do anything—neatly forgetting that when it put the testing rules in place that are now driving those costs, its own economists told it that the costs of those rules would be unsustainable for many businesses.  Even when asked by Congress to address these costs, the Commission’s activities have consisted of foot-dragging tactics cloaked in enough bureaucratic jargon to make even the most cynical panjandrum shake his head in wonder.

Chairman Kaye and Commissioner Mohorovic, however, did come up with three specific additional recommendations that, if implemented, actually might reduce the testing burdens now being imposed by the Commission.  Admittedly, what the two proposed is still quite modest—thin gruel but still some nutrition.  Yet I cannot help but think that if each had written an individual letter, those letters would have been quite different—one more expansive and one less so.  The point is that, presumably, the two were able to accommodate their differing views to get to a consensus.   (But since nothing substantive has been done to drive forward the ideas articulated in the letter, it remains to be seen whether they are merely words on paper, like the rest of the agency’s burden reduction efforts, or whether there is anything real behind them.)

My hope in thinking that perhaps a new effort at consensus building was alive and well at the CPSC was dashed a couple of weeks ago when the agency voted to propose a rule to regulate recreational off-road vehicles (ROV’s). The agency and the industry have been working on safety issues associated with ROV’s for many years. These issues are perhaps the most complex that the agency has ever been presented with and, hence, are not easily resolved.  The industry has developed and recently revised a voluntary standard even as the agency staff worked to write a proposed mandatory standard.  When the proposed standard was made public shortly before the Commission was scheduled to vote on whether to issue it for public comment, the industry engineers met with the staff to discuss various technical issues presented by the draft, an effort which staff agreed was productive. Rather than make further attempts to work through these technical issues, three Commissioners chose to vote to issue the notice of proposed rulemaking. The result was a 3 to 2 vote, along party lines, to issue a proposed rule that is probably not the best work product the agency could have put out.  An amendment to delay the vote by 90 days to give the technical experts the opportunity to work through the issues raised was defeated, again along party lines.

If the leadership of the agency was serious about trying to compromise, then agreeing to this amendment would have been a no-brainer.  If issues could have been resolved, or at least clarified, in that 90 day period, then efficiencies would have been gained. If not, then the industry’s hand would have been called.  Either way, no one can make a credible argument that a rulemaking this complex and potentially lengthy would be so delayed as to jeopardize safety.  A controversial issue would have been diffused, the dissenting commissioners would perhaps have a harder time voting against the NPR; complex technical issues may have been clarified with a resulting better proposed rule—all around a win-win.

Finding consensus and reaching a compromise is very hard work.  If you are in the minority, sometimes achieving small wins may not feel as satisfying as keeping to your principles.  Yet small wins can still be wins.  But when you are in the majority, compromise means that you have to be willing to try to reach common ground even your vote count says you do not need to and when the temptation to jump on the steamroller is strong.  As we are seeing, finding the promise in compromise is not an easy thing to do.

Connecting Corporate Counsel

Readers who are in corporate law departments may be interested in a conversation I had recently with the editors of Corporate Counsel Connect, a Thomson Reuters publication focusing on corporate law departments.  The focus of the piece was the development and 30 year history of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), where I served as its first executive director.  You can find the interview in the October issue of Corporate Counsel Connect, here.  In a separate article I discussed with the editors the challenges that corporate counsel face in the current regulatory environment.

Corporate counsel who are not members of ACC may want to check out the resources it offers.


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