Sunday, October 11, 2009

CPSIA - More New Standards to Help Put The Fork Into Small Business

Perhaps you are aware that the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and British Retail Consortium (BRC) are working on new "Global Standards for Consumer Goods". RILA presented this new construct to the CPSC on October 5 and were warmly greeted for their efforts. According to the Product Safety Letter: "Tenenbaum termed the effort 'encouraging' and urged the group to include details in upcoming comments on CPSIA-related reasonable testing programs. She said it is good that the release of the RILA program and the pending comment period (slated to open in November) are likely to coincide. 'The timing could not be better,' she told the visitors. She also noted the power of retailers to push standards: 'The way that you all could fan out in China would really facilitate the process exponentially.' Adler said, 'What I heard is terrific. You're all ferocious competitors and will remain so. But you're not going to compete on safety.' Also pointing to the power of retailers to impose standards, he called regulators and retailer allies.

A quick glance at these standards makes clear that they are a death sentence to small businesses. The practical impact of the rules will be to bifurcate the market for importers and factories - suppliers to mass market and suppliers to the rest. You won't be able to be in the mass market camp without complying with these standards. There won't be any halfway point - it will be like a pregnancy test, you comply or you don't (pregnant or not pregnant). Of course, this also means that you must incur a HUGE cost to sell even one product into the mass market. This barrier to entry will make the mass market off-limits to small fry. Goodbye American Dream?

I find it interesting that the CPSC jumped at the chance to support these standards. Where did the standards come from? The mass market, of course. RILA is a mass market enterprise, designed to represent the interests of a few large (LARGE) retailers. Ditto for the BRC. Notably, when the CPSIA was in gestation in 2007/8, the folks behind the law reached out to the likes of Wal-Mart to ask about the feasibility of their brilliant safety innovations. By several reports (to me directly), Wal-Mart and their ilk expressed little concern about their ability to comply. Case closed. Ahem, what about the rest of us? Congress overlooked that little detail, figuring that what Wal-Mart can do, the rest of us can do, too.

Have we learned NOTHING in the last 18 months? Please don't make me answer that one.

A quick glance at the standards reveals that they are really only suitable for mega-businesses, particularly those that have committed to ISO 9001 and the like. This group does NOT include EVERYONE. The sections on Risk Management and Management (check out 3.8 Traceability - yeah, FULL traceability is required) are particularly out of reach for small businesses. Some of the new standards have already been addressed by initiatives in recent years to address "Code of Conduct" issues, like ICTI-CARE, and will probably be okay (within limits). But the RILA/BRC standards go much, much further. The cost implications of these standards for small business are breathtaking.

If a "damn the consequences, don't bother me with the details" rush to implement these new standards takes hold, there will be little reason left to try to be a small business in America. After all, standards like the RILA/BRC global standards are a classic glass ceiling to growth. I hope somebody takes note of the impact of these awful standards on small business, the largest creator of jobs in America. Small business needs an advocate, and these days, it's hard to identify anyone in Congress that gives a darn. If no one will rise to the occasion, I guess we can always open up a sandwich shop. That's about the only option that will be left for small business. Making products, besides sandwiches, has become a very unrewarding pastime.

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