Handmade toys in jeopardy?


Toy-makers from China to Snelling Avenue will feel the effects of new child safety legislation. Here in Minnesota, makers of hand-crafted toys say the new law may put them out of business.

In August 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) (PL 110-787) was passed by Congress to strengthen product safety laws to ensure only safe and compliant products are sold to our nation’s children. Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar helped sponsor the bill, which was aimed at protecting American children from toys with lead or phthalates, a type of plastic harmful to children. The new legislation bans lead and phthalates in toys, mandates third-party testing and certification for all toys, and requires toy makers to permanently label each toy with a date and batch number.

The Handmade Toy Alliance (HTA), an association of crafters and merchants, led by Dan Marshall, owner of St. Paul’s Peapods Natural Toys, takes issue with the law. The 128 members of the association, including several local companies, as well as national and international toymakers, have been blogging, writing letters to Congress, and meeting in response to the new legislation. Marshall said in a telephone interview, “the law was written in response to mass market manufacturers in China, but it’s affecting small manufacturers.”

Marshall said that under the new legislation, which goes into effect in February, small toymaking companies will have to pay up to $4,000 per toy to keep in compliance with the new law, which is far beyond what they make on each item. Toymakers will have to pay for a separate test for every “batch” of toys, and each batch of toys will require multiple tests for the different materials used to make that toy. Unlike large corporations, which mass-produce toys, many handmade toymakers produce only a few of each kind of toy, so the testing fees would be prohibitive.

Marshall said that HTA hopes to work with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to make the new regulations more small- business friendly. He said that the HTA is encouraging the commission to exempt natural materials such as wood and wool that inherently do not contain lead or phthalates. Toxicologists from CPSC have made an internal recommendation that natural materials be exempt from testing, and the CPSC is scheduled to make a final decision on January 5.

Marshall said he also hopes the CPSC will allow small manufacturers to test materials, rather than individual toys, or costumes, since many toymakers create unique items.

Susan Berns, owner of Fairy Finery, a company that creates handmade dress-up clothes for boys and girls, said in a telephone interview that she is worried the new legislation will put her out of business. She said the problem with the new legislation is that the “testing requirements become end-product based rather than component-based.” She said that fabric companies don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the new law, so it is up to the manufacturers that use the material to pay for the testing.

“I’m not against products being safe,” Berns said, “but the pressure on small manufacturers is onerous.” Burns said that typically her costumes contain numerous different types of material, and to individually test each one would make the business pay more in testing than it is paid for an item. “It’s a very emotional time for people in the children’s industry,” Berns said.

In addition to exempting natural materials and allowing testing of materials rather than individual toys or products, Dan Marshall said that HTA hopes that the CPSC will exempt micro-producers from the Consumer Product Safety and Improvement Act. Marshall said he hopes that small producers, such as a woman knitting hats in her home, will be exempt from the law in much the same way small family farms are exempt from individual food labeling laws.

Ross Corson, a legislative assistant for Amy Klobuchar, said the senator was working with the CPSC to make the legislation workable for toy manufacturers. Corson said that although Klobuchar is not interested in changing or amending the legislation, there may be ways to work with small manufacturers through the rules that the CPSC writes based on the legislation.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.