Cecilia Leibovitz is the kind of person who writes sentences like: “Children are individuals, each with their own unique personality, so I just couldn’t feel good about buying mass-produced toys and clothing from cookie-cutter chain stores.” Leibovitz is the 36-year-old founder of Craftsbury Kids, a Vermont-based online vendor of handmade toys. She sells the type of gear that arty, upscale, NPR-listening parents can’t get enough of: sock monkeys, baby onesies featuring a “hand-stamped and appliquéd” crow with “crocheted flowers and recycled fabric grass,” even a carved wooden “707 Air Force One plane” with “a beautiful silk screened portrait of President John F. Kennedy.” So no one was more surprised than Leibovitz last winter when she found herself on the wrong side of federal law, fighting against consumer safety groups, and building alliances with Republican congressmen to defend free markets.
It all started with the panic over Chinese toys in the summer of 2007. Against a backdrop of daily scare stories about kids gnawing on knick-knacks full of lead, Mattel recalled a staggering 19 million toys. The news made headlines for weeks.
Leibovitz and her compatriots had been anticipating the backlash against industrial Chinese toys for years. When the Polly Pockets hit the fan, here was a cadre of crafty hipsters ready to fill the void, making toys, clothes, and even foodstuffs in small U.S.-based factories and home workshops. Leibovitz remembers thinking the Mattel recall would be good for business. And for a while, it was: In September 2007, when holiday sales started to ramp up, “there was just suddenly a huge demand for wooden natural toys and alter-native toys that were made in the U.S.,” she says. Her suppliers worked feverishly to fill orders.
But the existence of this burgeoning domestic alternative wasn’t enough to placate a dosomething Congress. In August 2008—more than a year after the toy scandal broke—President George W. Bush signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which went into effect on February 10, 2009. The law bans lead and phthalates in toys, books, clothes, and any other object intended for children under 12. To enforce these rules, the law requires every toymaker, distributor, or retailer who sells products in the U.S. to certify each of its models through third-party testing, labeling every item with an individual date and batch number.
Overnight, a bunch of cheerful believers in good government found themselves on the wrong side of a do-gooding law. Under the terms of the new rules, their lead-free, hand-crafted toys were now illegal until proven clean.
When the law went into effect, the U.S. “went from being a country that did not really push certification to having the strictest certification in the world,” says Jason Gold of Camden Rose, a natural toymaker in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Many of the toys Gold sells are made from wood pulled out of a local forest by Amish men using horses, so that no machines are employed in the making of the products. Gold had been following the progress of the CPSIA from the beginning, trying unsuccessfully to get the word out about damage to mom-andpop producers, until interest finally exploded in the first week of December.
The new requirements are easy for big manufacturers to meet but are impossibly onerous for small domestic toymakers. Producers have to pay up to $4,000 to have each new toy tested in the United States. Ironically, testing can be done much more cheaply in China—for just a couple hundred dollars per item. But this option is hardly appealing to a man who pays top dollar to Amish carters to make sure no dead dinosaurs are burned in the production of his wooden toy dinosaurs.
Before the legislation, says Leibovitz, “I’d never really gotten involved politically. I’ve just tried to work in my own life.” But a lot of what she thought she knew about the political process turned out to be wrong. She was discouraged to discover how little power citizens, and even individual lawmakers, have over legislation. Consumer safety groups, she says, ended up getting exactly what they wanted.
“I’ve been supportive of some of these groups,” she says. “I actually blogged about this safety issue in 2007, thinking we were just focusing on problem products. I didn’t realize how massive the law would be and how many products it would cover.”
As an active member of the Handmade Toy Alliance, an ad hoc group set up in response to the CPSIA, Leibovitz has spoken with quite a few congressmen during the last few months. “I’m a little disappointed,” she says. “What it looks like is that our needs are largely being responded to by Republicans. Most of the people in the Homemade Toy Alliance are probably more aligned with the Democratic side. And people in the Homemade Toy Alliance kind of like the things that these consumer groups are touting, like safer products and natural things.” But now she finds herself in this “weird alliance.”
‘There’s No Doubt About It That It’s Capitalism, but That’s OK’
Leibovitz’s CraftsburyKids.com is one of many websites featuring carefully curated collections of safe toys, books, and clothes for the wary parent. There are sellers to cater to every anxiety about Chinese toys or other threats from the industrialized world. Some emphasize green practices, reusable materials, and local inputs. Others stress tradition, operating on a toy variant of the “slow food” motto, “If your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it.” Some stand in opposition to big-box stores, striving to offer cheap, community-oriented alternatives to Wal-Mart. Others are purely concerned about safety and cater to the no-vaccinesand- lots-of-hormone-free-milk set.
The current philosopher-king of the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement is Dale Dougherty, editor and founder of Make and Craft magazines. Dougherty, 53, says of Make: “Behind what we do is an ethic—we don’t wear it on our sleeve—of anti-consumerism.” Yet that’s not the same as anti-capitalism. As many small producers told me, in so many words, “How could I be against global capitalism? I just sold something to a person in Australia.” Or Singapore. Or London. Many products are made with supplies bought cheaply online from China or India, making even the humblest hand-sewn tea towel a product of the global economy even before it goes on sale.
Modern crafter-hipsters make the same T-shirts, cupcakes, and self-produced records that hobbyists have been generating for decades. But now the T-shirts are one-of-a-kind originals available for worldwide sale before the silkscreening is dry, the music is sold online and promoted using Web 2.0 social networking tools, and the cupcakes are organic, vegan, and made from local ingredients. The true amateurs still do it for fun but are just one YouTube video away from international fame. And for the more serious practitioner, it’s never been easier to convert an idea into a product, and a product into a going concern.