As the parent of a two-year-old with a background in environmental science, the process of selecting a toy can turn into a full-day research exercise. If money were not a concern, my search would quickly end with one of the niche businesses specializing in super high end, chemical-free everything toys. However, like many parents, cost is a selection criterion, which means finding that balance between safe and affordable.
Searching today is an exercise of trial and error within the Google search bar, using terms such as green toys, made in USA toys, wooden toys, etc. with the hope of stumbling upon a great blog or business. Despite having nearly every item on the planet, Amazon is one of the last places I browse due to insufficient product information. Amazon is great if you want to know how tall and heavy something is, but not the environmental attributes of its construction.
As a quick example, let's look at the popular kid's brand, Melissa and Doug, and a random toy from their collection on Amazon, A Deluxe Pounding Bench Activity Center. The information provided on Amazon for this product is limited to
- Classic pounding toy with a design twist
- Durable wood construction
- Wooden hammer included
- 10" x 5.25" x 5"
- Ages 2+
- Item Weight: 2.6 pounds
- Origin: China
As a parent concerned about the negative impacts of lead paint on brain development, this information leaves me with a big question: how do I know the brightly colored paint does not contain lead, especially when China is fairly notorious for failing vendor quality standards?
I understand Amazon is somewhat bound by the level of information provided by its vendors. But if the result is a lost customer, what is to stop Amazon from innovating - innovation is in the DNA of the company after all. This intersection between product and customer is where I believe Amazon could positively incorporate Product Stewardship.
Let's take a quick look at another company that already demonstrates the power of product stewardship to drive sales, Whole Foods. What is one of the key reasons individuals shop at Whole Foods rather than the cheap grocery down the street?
- Whole Foods serves as a clearing house with a minimum standard - as a customer, you know that by making it on the shelf, the product will not contain various man-made ingredients only a chemist could pronounce.
- Products are clearly identified as Non-GMO, Local, etc. as well as with rankings for numerous product types (fish, meat, cleaners, and produce).
What purpose does this serve? It creates an impact of what I term the Apple Effect. The Apple Effect is about making the act of something dead simple, which Apple perfected in the design of their products. For Whole Foods and Amazon, the Apple Effect is relieving the buyer of concerns with the product. Amazon's product review system is one great way to provide the Apple Effect, but to protect our children, I need more.
As Decoding Sustainability is focused on tangible results, the following is a rough picture of how I believe Amazon could in practice incorporate a product stewardship clearinghouse.
- Pilot the concern with a hazard that is both well-documented and easy to measure, such as lead paint.
- Develop a robust methodology for testing toys using an appropriate device, an XRF analyzer in this case.
- Identify pass/fail action levels from existing epidemiology reports.
- Develop a plan on how to label products that pass on their product page, such as an Amazon Tested Lead-Free logo or other visual cue. Equally important, a plan for managing products that fail, e.g. additional testing, supplier correction action plan, pulling the product, etc.
- Equally important, develop a plan for managing products that fail, e.g. additional testing, supplier correction action plan, pulling the product, etc.
Now there are real legal issues to navigate with this type of action, but the label is a key means to provide customers with a level of comfort in clicking the buy button.
Alternatively, Amazon could create a minimum set of criteria that vendors of certain products must provide - think of it like an Environmental Preferable Selling Policy. Either way, the end goal is to protect your customers, so they feel comfortable buying from you - a social and economic win-win.