When Raelynn Hughes of Holland, Michigan, founded her company, Mommy Necklaces in 2004, overseas competition was not even on her radar screen. Raelynn’s goals were safety, fashion and comfort. As a young mother with a new baby, she noticed that her easily distracted breast-feeding daughter, Megan, would instantly calm down when she focused on the heirloom necklace that Raelynn had received as a gift from her grandmother. The baby would hold it, twist it, and try to put it in her mouth. Raelynn was naturally concerned that her baby might accidentally break the necklace, or that the jewelry might contain metals that would be harmful to her child. So she went to her computer and scanned stores that sold baby toys, trying to find a safe and practical substitute for her grandmother’s necklace. It would be nice if it was also fashionable and relatively inexpensive too, she thought. She quickly discovered that there was nothing available.
Then and there Mommy Necklaces was born. Now a thriving company, with a wide range of safety-tested products, Mommy Necklaces distributes in the U.S. and overseas. Her product contains no harmful chemicals or toxins, cording with a break-away closure, and beads that will not break, splinter or crack under the regular duties of motherhood. Hughes has made a commitment to remain U.S. sourced. She tests all components for product safety, and guarantees to repair any of her necklaces that are broken – no matter how.
Hughes employs a number of young women in the area, many of whom discovered the company as new mothers. They work on production of the final product either at the Mommy Necklaces design studio, or taking pieces home to assemble. As she describes it, “There is no sweat shop, child labor, or assembly line. We’re a puzzle of perfection that could not be put together with the same integrity if we were outsourced and were disconnected from our sources.”
Ms Hughes decided that all cords, components and beads would be sourced in the U.S. because she wanted to support manufacturing in this country. She chose as her supplier of beads the Greene Plastics Company in Hope Valley, Rhode Island. Around this time she would read news reports about recalls of China-made products due to excessive lead or phthalate content. Greene Plastics continuously tested its beads to ensure they were within standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC).
“From the beginning,” Ms Hughes recounted in a 2012 interview, “I wasn’t trying to scare people, but simply open their eyes to the magnitude of this potential problem. Our customers could buy our products with complete confidence that it was safe for their baby to be around our jewelry without worry that a transfer of toxic chemicals could occur.” Her focus on the safety issue when she first started the company in 2004 would prove prescient.
In 2004, the same year that Raelynn Hughes was starting her company, Mommy Necklaces, the California Department of Public Health distributed 300,000 lunchboxes to children throughout the state to promote eating fresh fruits and vegetables. One third of those were supplied by TA Creations, a Los Angeles company that had imported the products from China. Two years later, a spot check by a Sacramento County lab discovered that some of those lunchboxes contained lead levels significantly above the legal limit proscribed by California Proposition 65 – at that time 600 parts per million. All 300,000 lunchboxes were recalled and TA Creations was eventually slapped with a $10 million fine, the largest legal judgment against an offender up to that time.
This was merely a prelude to a barrage of product safety news that would change the way companies source – and consumers buy – children’s products. With the passage in 1986 of California Proposition 65, businesses were prohibited from knowingly exposing consumers to potentially dangerous substances without clearly notifying them of the presence of those substances. The burden of proof was now placed on companies, not government, to ensure that they were selling products that complied with official limits on hazardous chemicals. Products that were non-compliant were required to carry a label stating that it “contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
Proposition 65 was clearly a challenge for U.S. manufacturers who now had to comply with a more stringent set of safety regulations in California than in the balance of the country. But it was an even greater challenge for U.S. companies importing finished goods from China. Many of these importers had been simply shopping product off the shelf of a trade show booth of a China manufacturer or agent in Hong Kong. They may have never taken the time to actually visit the mainland China factory where the products were manufactured. They never inspected the materials going into the products they were importing from China; never saw the conditions in the factories. They were buying from China like one would buy a can of peas off the shelf of a grocery store and simply assuming the products were safe.
But Proposition 65 forced those importers to pay more careful attention to the “DNA” of a product – the base metal from which it was constructed, the chemicals that were used to manufacture it, the composition of the paint that decorated it. Although these were also challenges for small to mid-size domestic manufacturers, they were far more onerous challenges for an importer with little knowledge or control of a manufacturing process taking place half a world away. Of course, if you were an importer not willing to comply you could choose to stop selling into California, or simply ignore the law – and put others at risk.
(In Part 2, to be posted next week, read how dangerous levels of lead in imported toys led the Consumer Products Safety Commission to take action)
Michael McKeldon Woody is host of the upcoming television program, and author of the upcoming book “American Dragon,” both of which profile U.S manufacturers successfully competing with overseas companies. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook at American Dragon – Michael McKeldon Woody. Twitter: @usdragon1