Responsible Buying for Nonprofit Needs
Apparel is by far the largest product category in the promotional products industry. A 2013 study by Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) cites the category as 27.84 percent of industry sales—nearly three times as much as the next-nearest category, writing instruments, at 10.42 percent. So if you're a nonprofit working with the promotional products industry for giveaways, fundraising or whatever the case may be, it likely goes without saying that you're either selling apparel or thinking of ways to utilize apparel to benefit the brand or fundraising of your organization.
Whether you're currently sourcing and selling apparel or hoping to, it's imperative that you have solid knowledge and understanding about the product safety and compliance standards governing the apparel category, which is especially important for nonprofits that are out to better the world. You don't want to get caught giving away T-shirts at your next event that are made in a sweatshop, nor do you want that direct mail trinket to be made in unsafe factory conditions. These factors can seriously damage a nonprofit's reputation, particularly those human rights and services organizations.
So what do you need to know about apparel product safety, social responsibility and compliance, in general? It turns out a lot.
There are federal regulatory organizations (note the plural here), state laws and regulations that vary from each of the 50 states, and several non-government organizations that also set important standards for the industry. There are flammability requirements, children's product regulations and decoration laws that all must be followed. There are also labor standards, environmental standards, labeling standards, etc.
The path to education on product safety is a long, complex one and also, as experience shows, one that shifts. In order to build a true knowledge base, you need to work to constantly educate yourself on compliance and safety. That might include attending seminars or workshops, participating in webinars, staying up on the current news, networking, and discussing the issues that impact the industry as a whole with your peers. It's also critically important that you talk with your suppliers about issues of safety and compliance and make sure that you are fully versed on the efforts they are taking to protect your nonprofit and your constituents.
Trust is a fine and valuable part of any nonprofit relationship, but when it comes to product safety, the old adage of "trust, but verify" has never been more applicable. A misstep on safety or compliance could potentially cost your organization thousands—if not much, much more—and untold brand damage, all over something you could have caught in the verification process had you known what to look or ask for.
To help you with product safety education for the apparel industry, below are some organizations, regulations and steps you can take to help make sure your products are compliant. It's by no means a complete list, but it's intended to help you either fine-tune your existing promotional products apparel business and/or help you get started utilizing safe, socially responsible and compliant apparel.
FEDERAL LAWS AND REGULATORY BODIES
The U.S. government plays a big part in product safety and regulation. Below are a handful of its organizations and laws that relate to apparel.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)
Founded in 1972, the CPSC is a federal organization that creates and enforces a number of product safety laws. It is not the sole source of product safety regulations—states and other government organizations also play a part—but it is one of the largest and most important.
"The Consumer Product Safety Commission unquestionably has the most impact in identifying, monitoring, educating, and, enforcing product safety," Cheron Coleman, director of corporate compliance and global sourcing for QCA-accredited company alphabroder, says. "The goal of the CPSC is 'to ensure that [the] public is protected against unreasonable risks of injury or death from consumer products.' The CPSC enforces the Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA), which regulates clothing flammability and a multitude of other safety issues including those addressed in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) and the Federal Hazardous Substance Act (FHSA)."
The Flammable Fabrics Act (FAA)
The CPSC regulates mandatory flammability standards under the auspices of the FFA. (Though the FFA predates the CPSC by more than 20 years, the Consumer Products Safety Act consolidated a number of safety standards, such as the FFA, FHSA and RSA, under its jurisdiction.) The standards are detailed and vary a bit depending on the item (different fabrics have different rules, etc.). It's important to read them in full on your own, however, the general concept of the act is that "No article of wearing apparel or fabric subject to the Act and regulations shall be marketed or handled if such article or fabric, when tested according to the procedures prescribed in section 4(a) of the Act (16 CFR 1609), is so highly flammable as to be dangerous when worn by individuals."
The FFA also allows the CPSC to inspect any factories, shipments or products for flammability standards, as well as to request samples or proof of testing, though these inspections can only happen if the product is found to be in violation of the FFA first. Further, D. E. Fenton, executive director, compliance for QCA, states that factory inspection authority granted under the FFA is rarely used.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The FTC is a federal organization charged with preventing "fraud, deception, and unfair business practices in the marketplace," for the American public. Its responsibilities are fairly broad, ranging from launching anti-trust cases to enforcing fair labeling on products, the latter of which is very much relevant to promotional apparel. The FTC enforces the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the Textile Products Identification Act and Care Labeling of Textile Wearing Apparel & Certain Piece Goods act.
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA)
The FLPA allows the FTC to "issue regulations requiring that all 'consumer commodities' be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product's manufacturer, packer or distributor." For apparel, this information should be displayed on the tag. Together with the Care Labeling of Textile Wearing Apparel & Certain Piece Goods (why there has to be care instructions on apparel), the requirements of the act support the Textile Products Identification Act (why and how mislabeling is unlawful).
Along with the CPSC and other federal organizations, states and other local jurisdictions have laws and rules regarding product safety. They are many and varied, some going down to the city level (though not related to apparel, the plastic bags bans passed by Los Angeles and other cities would be an example of cities passing product regulations). State and local laws technically only apply to the jurisdiction of the governed area, however some of them are either so common, like the increasing restrictions on formaldehyde (commonly used in stabilizers for embroidery) or from states so large, like California's Proposition 65, that they're effectively national law.
Designed to protect citizens from toxic chemicals in products that are released as the product degrades, Proposition 65 was made law in California in 1986. The law allows the California Attorney General's office to monitor and force companies to warn consumers about chemicals "that are known to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm" in products. The state keeps a list of chemicals it deems dangerous, and any company presenting products containing the chemical in the state must provide a "clear and reasonable" warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a listed chemical.
According to the law, this warning can be given a few different ways: labeling a product, posting signs where it will be used, distributing notices or publishing notices in a newspaper. Once a chemical is listed, businesses have 12 months to comply with warning requirements. The penalty for failing to provide notice can be as high as $2,500 per day.
It might not be immediately obvious how Proposition 65 relates to apparel, but remember that dyes and decoration, additives like moisture-wicking chemicals, and even pesticides used when growing the cotton can affect the chemical composition of a piece of apparel and, therefore, impact its perceived safety and/or compliance (or failure thereof) under Prop 65. Example: A hat for a California state-sponsored nutrition education program was embroidered with a logo that was stitched on a Pellon stabilizer that contained formaldehyde as a stiffener. The promotional company who provided the caps was later fined. Other common products cited for Prop 65 violations are insulated lunch bags (lead, phthalates and formaldehyde), backpacks (lead in plastic buckles) and drinkware (also for lead).
Along with federal and state bodies, there are third-party organizations that impact the safety and compliance of apparel.
The Fair Labor Association (FLA)
The FLA sets standards and monitors participating companies. Its standards prohibit practices such as forced and child labor, employee harassment and abuse, and discrimination. The FLA also works to ensure fair wages, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and fair compensation. Adidas, Fruit of the Loom and Nike are all part of the FLA, as are QCA-accredited companies SanMar, Design Resources Inc. (DRI), and Cutter and Buck. Additionally, manufacturers like Gildan, who supply to QCA-accredited companies like alphabroder and Bodek and Rhodes, are also members of the FLA.