Product recalls reveal risk to retailers from toxic chemicals

The launch of Early Learning Centre’s new green marketing campaign in August was overshadowed by a massive industry-wide recall of toys containing high levels of lead. The campaign fails to mention chemicals in products.

The “Going Green” campaign launched by Early Learning Centre is designed to boost its green credentials with shoppers.

According to Leann Atkinson, head of corporate responsibility, the campaign focuses on sustainable wood sourcing and packaging because these were the issues mentioned by its customers.

Targets include making all wood products comply with a “forest friendly sourcing policy” by 2010. Products should either have Forest Stewardship Council chain of custody certification, or be made of recycled wood, rubber wood or bamboo. The retailer says 65% of wood products already comply.

Also by 2010, own-brand cardboard packaging will have to contain at least 70% recycled material, all packaging must be recyclable and product packaging will be cut by 30%.

The campaign excludes chemicals, despite a series of global product recalls this summer of toys with paint containing excessive lead. In mid-August, millions of Mattel toys made in China were recalled and removed from retailers’ shelves.

The recalls – the latest in a series involving products made in China – not only exposed current frailties in product testing by retailers and manufacturers, but also raised the question of how many other products on sale pose a serious risk to consumers.

In June, Early Learning Centre had to withdraw Thomas & Friends products made by US firm, RC2. Mothercare, which bought Early Learning Centre in June, was forced to remove Dora the Explorer toys in August. The toys were made by Mattel subsidiary Fisher-Price.

The withdrawals have belatedly prompted scrutiny of internal checks, and were “examples of how things can go wrong despite very tight control measures”, said a Mothercare statement. Processes have since been “double-checked” and “surveillance in this area” increased. Suppliers have been reminded of legal requirements and asked to check their paint stocks. Mothercare is also “increasing the amount of final product testing carried out.”

Toxicological assessments are conducted for “products with intended chemical release” such as paints, crayons and baby lotions. Unintended release from embedded chemicals is monitored through “supplier declaration of compliance and independent product testing”.

Early Learning Centre’s chemicals policy, issued to suppliers in 2005, calls for listed priority substances of concern to be avoided where possible. However, it sets no maximum levels or timetable to phase them out.

The company has previously conducted supplier surveys to monitor compliance, but Ms Atkinson admits this is “a mammoth task with such a large supply chain and a diverse product range”, combined with suppliers’ failure to keep “records of all substances in products”.

The focus has shifted to helping suppliers understand and comply with new requirements under the EU Directive on the restriction of hazardous substances (RoHS) and the EU REACH chemicals regime.

In 2002, Mothercare followed Early Learning Centre in signing a Friends of the Earth pledge to phase out risky chemicals within five years. In 2004, Early Learning Centre was ranked second in FoE’s league of toy retailers’ performance (ENDS Report 353, pp 31-32 ). Mothercare came seventh after a questionnaire revealed that its own-brand products contained substances such as brominated flame retardants, triclosan and bisphenol A (see p 5  ).

The firm’s chemicals policy, introduced in 2003, says its goal is to “seek to phase out the use of materials that may pose an unacceptable risk” when scientific or consumer concern demands this. But it was unable to say whether its products still contain any of these substances. It claimed to be “very proactive” in addressing phthalates, some of which are linked to endocrine disruption.

Permanent EU restrictions on phthalates in toys came into force last year (ENDS Report 367, p 48 ). Mothercare’s 2007 annual report said it has “attempted” to ensure all products comply with the restrictions. It is extending phthalate restrictions to clothing and footwear.

Another goal is to ensure that hazardous substances are only used “in a safe and controlled way, and that processes and procedures comply with relevant national regulations”.

Own-brand products are manufactured in places including China, Thailand and India and the firm said it visits suppliers to ensure that they have minimum standards in place. “Although we haven’t carried out specific environmental audits we would expect auditors to pick up on issues such as pollution of local rivers and discharge of toxic chemicals to the atmosphere,” said Mothercare.

The company still has not set the targets for energy and water use promised in its environmental policy. This is unsurprising, as the firm has no formal environmental management system in place and no one has overall responsibility for environmental issues.

“Traditionally we have dealt with environmental issues on a more informal basis,” said Mothercare.

“We have made a lot of environmental improvements and we realise that without the baseline data and a clear target we can’t demonstrate to the outside world just how seriously we take this issue.”