China: A Call for Enforcement

Carole Sloan, July 9, 2007

There has been the age-old challenge of intellectual property rights (IPR) violations in dealing with the Chinese. It's almost a given in the entertainment world, albeit, not an acceptable given. And the problem has spread across product lines to the design work of American fabric and home textiles, with a similar frustration level in dealing with authorities.

As if the IPR scenario was not bad enough, the situation has exploded to include products that can actually harm humans and animals.

Beginning the most recent series of alerts regarding Chinese-made products were the pet food contamination episodes. These were quickly followed by an antifreeze ingredient in toothpastes, lead paint in toys, tires with treads that separated, and most recently, seafood and fish that were contaminated by various noxious elements.

And just last week, a report in The New York Times related that the Chinese government has acknowledged that nearly 20% of its food and consumer products were substandard or tainted.

While food, toys, and tires are immediate health and safety threats, there is a clear potential relationship with the home textiles business, and retailing in general.

First is the clear problem of IPR, but even more challenging is the issue of quality. It's one thing for an American retailer or supplier to ally with a Chinese producer for a product that has explicitly defined specs. But how many of these products actually are tested — and rejected if they are found not up to standard?

Who is around in the Chinese producing marketplace to actually police the standards?

There are many ramifications for the American marketplace in home furnishings. Just last week, the Federal regulations on mattress flammability kicked in. And as mattresses are just beginning to be produced offshore, the liability factor becomes a key issue. The U.S. receiver is the one liable for compliance, and as one mattress producer remarked, there's not a retailer he knows who will sign off on this.

And the mattress situation is just the beginning. Flammability regs are steadily moving through the California bureaucracy for upholstered furniture and home textiles, as well as at the Federal level via the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

And then there's the issue of formaldehyde, a substance that has been found in food, according to reports, as well as in textile products for the home.

Which retailers will accept responsibility for compliance? Surely one must be Wal-Mart, whose vast merchandise supply across the board comes from China.

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