• A company called CVS Pharmacy Inc. of the US is going to pay $45,000 for failing to report that it had sold children’s hooded jackets with drawstrings at the neck from mid-2008 to January 2009. In March 2009, these jackets were recalled and in addition, now, a penalty has been levied. Product safety guidelines in the US requires children’s jackets, sweatshirts and other “upper-outerwear” to have buttons or Velcro and not drawstrings to prevent accidents due to strangulation or entanglement.
• The popular store Build-A-Bear, where kids can experience making their own stuffed teddy bear, has been ordered to return close to 30,000 lapel pins which say Love, Hugs, Peace, but ironically are unsafe because their surface paint was found to have excessive levels of lead.
• The chain store Target in the US has recalled a line of wooden stools because it received reports of 26 instances where the stool broke when someone stood on it. Consumers have been advised immediately to stop using the step stools and return them to any Target store to receive a full refund.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is the organization that has enforced these laws and ordered the companies concerned to recall their products. It is an organization that “is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency’s jurisdiction”. The CPSC lays down safety standards for hundreds of consumer products, scours the market identifying potentially dangerous products and penalizes companies that do not comply with product safety standards. There are three remarkable things I noticed after detailed reading of its activities and understood why it has become a powerful protector of American consumers:
• It spares no one. Especially those companies which knew that there’s some problem with the product and did not notify CPSC within 24 hours, as is the law. So, a white goods company like Black and Decker has been fined $960,000 for not reporting defective weed trimmers, whose caps came off during use and became projectiles causing injury to the user and bystanders.
• It takes no chances on safety, sometimes to the point of paranoia. It has recalled a toy key with a remote. If you see the picture, you would wonder what harm this keychain can possibly cause. But apparently, there have been a few cases where the plastic key ring and/or the metal keys broke. These bits could then pose a choking hazard to children. No injuries have yet been reported, but they are not waiting. All keys have been recalled.
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• It ensures the process of return of the defective product and refund is easy for the consumer. In the case of Build-A-Bear, consumers can return the lapel pin to any Build-A-Bear store to receive a $5 store coupon. If they can’t visit the store, they can contact the company through the toll free number or the website to discuss alternate ways to get a refund. The only thing left is for a company official to make personal visits to the homes of wronged lapel-pin buyers. (This is the moment, dear customer, to pause and reflect on the last time you tried to get a refund from any company in India.)
Visiting the website www.cpsc.gov is enlightening and also slightly depressing because it makes one so aware of how many light years away Indian consumers are from receiving such protection. Here’s why product safety is so lax in India:
• In India there is no powerful government body such as the CSPC, which is concerned solely with consumer safety across product categories. There is no authority which is watching over consumers like a protective mother tigress and warding off all kinds of dangers from carbon monoxide of portable generators to unsafe playground equipment, like the CPSC does in America.
•In India, managerial attitudes give undue importance to scale and numbers. So if 100 customers have complained in case of a product line that sold 100,000 units, the company will dismissively brush aside the figure as being a minuscule percentage of the total. Quality and customer service managers across industries have a hard time getting their management to pay attention to any issue that is not reported by a few hundred customers. In the American examples given earlier, action is taken even if there are a handful of complainants, because the idea is to nip the problem in the bud before it spirals into a big numbers and causes bad publicity and legal suits. Also, when it comes to safety, even a single complaint matters, while in India, since there is scant respect for life in general, it takes huge public and media uproar for a company to take action. In recent memory, the only time companies came close to product recall because of safety issues was when Cadbury faced allegations of nickel contamination in chocolates and when the cola companies nearly pulled out their soft drinks during the pesticide controversy.
But expecting product recall may be asking for the moon. We first need a vigilante organization with teeth that scans all the products in the marketplace, picks the ones that are unsafe and brings the errant manufacturer to book. Currently that may happen only if someone files a public interest litigation or goes to a consumer court. The challenge is compounded by the fact that in India often safety is compromised wilfully by the manufacturer, especially in the unorganized sector. Think adulterated masalas or toys or snacks which conform to no known safety standards. No manufacturer is going to grow a conscience and recall his products when it is an error of commission not omission. Besides of course, it helps that no one is asking him to. Perhaps, there is more hope of unsafe products getting exposed through Twitter and Facebook users than by any government body.
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com