Don’t play with safety

UK toy makers who sub-contract production to the Far East may cut costs, but they can’t maintain acceptable standards of quality and service, says Sim Oram

With the Christmas season in full swing one thing that’s on a lot of people’s minds, whether they’re manufacturers, retailers, parents or children, is toys.

This year, they have been big news, with several high-profile product recalls and safety scares, as well as concerns about conditions in the Chinese factories which produce a significant proportion of the world’s toys.

In addition, the amount of packaging that’s thrown away and the batteries needed to power electronic toys have a great impact on the environment — and that’s a worry.

UK manufacturers sub-contracting in the Far East are continually trying to hammer down product costs, but there’s no way they can maintain standards of quality and service if they keep doing this. Factories that are subject to the sorts of financial pressure aimed at driving down prices will struggle to maintain a good track record and uphold the procedures and processes guaranteeing safety.

These concerns can be addressed by taking a fresh approach to design and the manufacturing process. Companies can continue to make traditional toys, but ‘traditional’ doesn’t mean that they have to be stuck in the past when it comes to safety or the environmental impact of products.

Design is where it all starts, and I strongly feel it’s possible to make safety and environmental concerns an intrinsic aspect of an holistic approach which embraces quality. Companies have to ask questions about whether toys will stand up to the rigours of years of abuse in children’s hands and then what their impact will be beyond this. They must then take the answers into consideration during the design process.

The toy industry is notoriously wasteful and we can’t afford to keep squandering resources. It’s bad business and it’s bad for the planet. How many toys are thrown away because their batteries have run out and there’s no screwdriver at hand to replace them? And how many batteries are used up in toys each year anyway? The figure is in the hundreds of millions.

To extend the life of our toys, companies can find ways to not include batteries. Russimco has taken the decision not to have them in its latest electronic toy offering. It was inspired by the design approach that led to the huge success of Trevor Bayliss’ clockwork radio and we decided to apply that to what we’ve called the ‘Ecotronics’ range. Hopefully this will shake up the industry and lead to a re-think of how toys affect the environment.

Something else that’s will effect the industry is the forthcoming EU directive on Eco-design relating to the entire lifecycle of electrical and electronic products from their production, right through to the end of their lives. The directive means that most electrical products — including many toys — will have to be manufactured so they have the minimum ecological impact.

One requirement is that companies should perform an ecological assessment of their products throughout their entire lifecycle and prepare a ‘footprint report’. Yet companies should go further than this. In addition to being transparent about the ecological impact of our products, they should also make as much information as possible about safety and the manufacturing process.

Manufacturing in the Far East means many companies take risks with safety, but plenty can be done to reduce risks. Like many manufacturers, Russimco subjects all its suppliers to a comprehensive annual review, but we’re aware that certain companies have found ways around this. I’ve witnessed, first hand, factories that are available for daily hire, just for inspections. So I make personal trips to watch my products being made and to see the checks in place. If you know your business, a personal visit will tell you if this is how your product is normally made.

It seems that many people want to distance themselves from responsibility and this has got to stop. Why is it, for example, that laboratories that undertake safety testing ask that certificates aren’t shown, because they can’t test every product in a batch?

We’re planning to sell all our toys with a unique batch number so consumers can trace through our website all the tests and procedures the product they have bought has undergone.

Electronic toys with alternative power sources; safety certificates that can be checked by consumers; personal inspections of suppliers — all this is just common sense. And isn’t that what good design and technology management is all about?

Sim Oram is managing director of Somerset toy manufacturer Russimco