Product Safety: First It Makes You Sick, Then It Makes You Better

Over the years the mantra has been consistent and the message the same, regardless of how it is actually phrased: How do I set myself apart from the competition? What is the secret to growing my sales? How do I become more valuable to my clients? Everyone seems to be looking for a way to separate themselves from everyone else, and the way to distance yourself from the rest of the pack is to differentiate. Bring something to the table that others do not. In the case of product safety, many are not talking about it because of a lack of understanding, unease with the subject, fear of scaring the customer or just plain lack of acceptance that product safety is an issue.

Why Product Safety Aware?

The industry’s progress in product safety education over the past 12 months has marked the dawn of a new age in promotional products. For the first time at Expo East 2015 and then at The PPAI Expo 2016, distributors could be confident that every single exhibitor on the show floor possessed, at minimum, a basic understanding of the company’s compliance obligations after having completed the PPAI Product Safety Aware Program. This program is an industry-wide initiative for distributors and suppliers that lays the essential foundation for protecting and growing the industry through improved responsible sourcing activities. It is a great place to start your product safety education and it provides essential continuing education for more seasoned individuals.

No Excuses

I’m here to tell you that stepping up your familiarity with product safety is not that difficult, and with a little knowledge and awareness you can get an edge over the competition and, at the same time, get on the right side of the law. The first step is to make the decision to accept the fact that product safety laws and regulations are not going away. If you want to continue to be successful in this industry, at some point you will need to give in to this fact and deal with the subject head on. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the regulations, with how they have been implemented or whether you think they are an impediment to your business. The fact remains that these regulations are the law and you have a responsibility to your clients and end-users to place safe products on the market.

Over the years I have heard dozens of reasons as to why product safety (responsible sourcing and compliance) is a waste of time. Here are some of the most memorable excuses:

• I’ve been in this industry for 25 years and have never heard of CPSIA.

• My customers are not concerned with it.

• My customers have not asked about it.

• This will go away.

• I do not see it as a major issue.

• It’s more of a West Coast thing.

• I do not have the time and resources to manage it.

• I’ll address it when it really becomes an issue with my customers.

• No one has time for that.

• It all sounds good, but in the end it’s still all about price.

• It does not produce revenue.

• I see value but do not know where to start.

• What are the real chances of getting caught if I do not do it?

• It’s just another example of government destroying small businesses.

As a former distributor, I understand where many are coming from with these points of view, and I would be lying if I did not admit that, at some point, I either thought or dared to utter a couple of these sentiments myself. As time progressed, and as I let the gravity of it all settle in, I realized that complaining or being resistant would only delay the inevitable. So I rolled up my sleeves, began to educate myself on the regulations, slowly started to implement some best practices and before I knew it I was comfortable with the lingo, knew where to go for answers and helped my company differentiate itself from the pack, which resulted in more business from larger clients.

Exciting? No! Important? Yes!

Let’s face it, reading compliance documents and getting up to speed on laws and regulations is not exactly light reading, and if I’m being completely honest, learning about this subject puts watching paint dry on a Saturday night up there with an all-day fast pass at the amusement park. Film critic Roger Ebert once said, “Nothing could be more boring than an absolutely accurate movie about the law.”

That being said, nothing could be more important to your business than the subject of responsible sourcing. Whether you buy in or not, over time there will be an impact on you and your company’s success or failure as it relates to responsible sourcing. This will be based purely on the decisions you chose to make regarding your role related to placing safe products on the market.

Tools To Make You Look Good

While our industry hasn’t been exactly what I would call a trailblazer in compliance, it does have a trade association—PPAI—that is considered a trailblazer in responsible sourcing education and training. I know the effectiveness of this training because I am a graduate of the program. Let me say it another way. As I mentioned earlier, I came to PPAI from within the industry. When I was learning how to make sense of all of this compliance stuff I turned to PPAI and the tools they had (the number of which have tripled or even quadrupled since then), and they got me through the worst days of my compliance training and made me my company’s go-to guy in the eyes of many.

The materials and resources available on the PPAI website at have been created and designed with our members and the industry in mind. Most of these resources have been scaled down from hard-to-read, convoluted and complex statutes, into manageable, easy-to-digest chunks of information geared specifically towards the impact on the promotional products industry.

I believe there is misplaced fear out there—that product safety and other responsible sourcing activities are scary subjects and too overwhelming to implement within one’s own daily activities. At one time I would have agreed. It will be as scary and as complicated as you make it.

Often, I advise my audiences to take in the information slowly and implement it in small doses. Trying to do too much at one time will overwhelm you and is likely to end in failure. This is why we have developed so many best practices, webinars, guides and online tools designed to guide our members through the process step-by-step.

Understanding and accepting compliance requirements and the effect these regulations have on this industry can and will provide you with a unique selling advantage for years to come. While responsible sourcing is your responsibility as a distributor or supplier it does not have to be onerous. With a little effort and time you will accrue the knowledge and comfort level to talk openly with your clients about being their brand steward. In the end, you will earn their trust, separate yourself from the competition, avoid hefty fines and establish yourself as the expert.

Expo East Product Safety Workshops

Plan to attend these sessions offered at Expo East on March 16 at the Atlantic City Convention Center in Room 408. They are free to show registrants; request a ticket when you register for the show at

Product Safety Basics

9-10:30 am

Presented by Tim Brown, MAS, and Andrew Farhat

This course introduces promotional products professionals to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), specific regulations concerning promotional products and other mandatory and voluntary standards.

What Do You Need To Know To Stay On The Right Side Of Regulations When Decorating Apparel?

1:30-2:30 pm

Presented by Tim Brown, MAS, Sue DeRagon and Mary Poissant

Find out what your obligations are and who is responsible for ensuring CPSIA compliance when a distributor enlists the services of a third-party decorator to embellish youth apparel. A similar presentation, Focus On Apparel Decoration, is available as an on-demand webinar.

Prop 65 And State Regulations

3-4 pm

Presented by Tim Brown, MAS, and Andrew Farhat

This session is a must for navigating your interstate deals, not just by knowing the rules, but having strategies in place to manage them.

Product Responsibility Best Practices by Product Category

4:30-5:30 pm

Join us as we review the top compliance issues you must consider when sourcing or selling key product categories including apparel, electronics and more. Find this and more webinars at

Tim Brown, MAS, is PPAI’s product responsibility manager. In 2013 he brought his background in supplier relations, sourcing and vendor compliance to his role at PPAI with the intent of driving member advocacy and communicating product safety issues throughout the industry. Prior to joining PPAI, Brown was the supplier relationship manager at Cintas Promotional Product, where he implemented industry-leading supplier management best practices. He has served on the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA) Distributor Advocacy Council, as well as on the board of directors for Tri-State Promotional Products Association (TSPPA) as president in 2012. He also served as a member of PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group (PRAG). Brown was named a PPB Rising Star in 2012.