Dangerous Toys, Strange Bedfellows

Hipster moms and conservative congressmen join forces against the regulatory state.


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.

'Weird Alliance'

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.

The epicenter of the DIY movement is Etsy. com, a massive, easy-to-use clearinghouse for handmade goods. Launched in 2005, Etsy bears some resemblance to eBay, but with an active community component. It also looks cooler, and the goods are nearly all small-batch or one of a kind. The 2.8 million items currently listed for sale are fully searchable, and sellers are easy to contact so you can grill them about which vegetables are used in the dyes for their pinafores. The site did $166,000 in sales its first year, $87 million by 2008.

Reached on his mobile phone while browsing in a Salvation Army store, Etsy's vice president of communications, Matt Stinchcomb, says: "At the end of the day, we're a company. We're in the business of capitalism. It's more about conscientious consumption or consuming better. There's no doubt about it that it's capitalism, but that's OK. It's a better kind." The Etsy enthusiasts won't bother Wal-Mart if Wal-Mart doesn't bother them. "As a culture, we're hungry for alternatives, which is part of our notion of abundance," says Dougherty. "It's not so much that Wal-Mart's wrong," but there's room for this too.

Leibovitz and her partner, Michael Secore, sell the work of dozens of home-based toymakers, mostly individuals and small family or community groups. "What we sell tends to include a lot of home-based activity," Leibovitz says. "A retired grandfather supplementing his Social Security income making pine trucks.…A lot of young mothers too. There are small shops where they've got a handful of people. Sewing rooms or wood shops with six to eight people." Yet Leibovitz and Secore have more in common with telecommuting information workers than they do with the archetypal grandmother selling doilies at a church bazaar. When their son Liam was born, Secore thought, "Wow, I want to stay here with this little guy." And so they figured out a way to do that and still make money.

That's another characteristic of the DIYers: They're breeders. (At one craft fair, I spotted a maternity T-shirt for sale that read, "I'm so crafty, I make people.") A visit to Etsy reveals that you can get just about anything printed on a onesie, and that the current generation of stay-at-home moms is an entrepreneurial group. A significant percentage of the products sold on Etsy are for kids, making home producers all the more shocked to have "for the children" rhetoric turned against their livelihood.

The link between technology culture and DIY crafters is not accidental. Make's Dale Dougherty claims to be the developer of the very first commercial website, and he is a co-founder of the big-think Web firm O'Reilly Media. At the dawn of the Internet age, in 1992, Dougherty helped Tim Berners-Lee (the guy who really invented the World Wide Web) and author Ed Krol write a book about this exciting new world. That book, The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, was, Dougherty says, "almost an homage" to the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand's 1968 classic about welding kits, synthesizers, Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, and accounting. Brand's hippie capitalism itself emanated from Menlo Park, in the heart of the Silicon Valley—the same place that saw the first garage meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, which eventually bred such counterculture-referencing industry powerhouses as Apple. In a 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Apple's Steve Jobs called the Whole Earth Catalog "Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along," adding, "It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions."

What Make and Craft take from Brand, Dougherty says, is a sunny outlook. "Where do we get this optimism about technology?" he asks. "I don't think the '50s had that feeling. Industrialization was just this large thing. It was going to overtake you, and you had to go along with it." Dougherty points out that the first Arts and Crafts movement was an adversarial response to Victorian-era industrialization. He says he initially modeled his magazines after early editions of Popular Mechanics, filled with careful instructions for projects like "How to Build Your Own Glider Plane" and a can-do confidence that Americans could be trusted to do things like build and fly homemade planes.

Until the toy testing law hit, entrepreneurial crafters had avoided close encounters of the regulatory kind. The dream for many DIY producers is to have their own shop someday. But this bitter first taste of battle with regulators may keep Etsy sellers and their kin confined for a while longer to the Internet, where they can continue to indulge in the kind of countercultural capitalism that would make their Menlo Park forefathers proud.

'We Are Not Trying to Advance a Nefarious Political Agenda'

When the lead scandal hit, crafters would have been justified in indulging in I-told-you-sos, but they were ready and eager to do more than criticize. Domestic alternatives to cheap Chinese toys abounded, and they were scaling up quickly—something that's easy to do when your business lives online. But the new federal rules yanked the hand-loomed rug out from under the crafters' plans for expansion. As the Handmade Toy Alliance points out on its homepage, "If this law had been applied to the food industry, every farmers market in the country would be forced to close while Kraft and Dole prospered."

In December, when word finally started to get out about the possible ramifications of the law, crafters rallied at websites such as Facebook, CPSIA-Central, and Etsy's discussion boards. Toymakers had hoped that it was somehow just a misunderstanding, but in the end all they got was a pretty terrible compromise: a one-year delay of the testing requirements, plus a vague promise from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the body charged with administering the law, not to go after domestic handmade toymakers. During that year, toymakers and sellers will still face fines and even jail time if the government discovers their products aren't up to code. And the postponement does not apply to painted toys or jewelry.

As a direct result of the CPSIA, some business is already drying up. Selecta, a German maker of wooden toys popular with the DIY consumer set, announced that it would no longer export toys to the United States as of the end of 2008, leaving its 1,200 U.S. retailers high and dry. HABA, another German toymaker, has removed its line of jewelry from 2009 catalogs. Since lead is completely banned in all objects intended for children, dirt bikes and other kids' bicycles containing tiny amounts of lead in their mechanical parts will become illegal. One dealer, Malcolm Smith of the Riverside, California, company Malcolm Smith Motorsports, is defying the law, but other companies have simply pulled their children's lines off the market.

Jewelry is subject to particularly strict requirements, since most true crystals and rhinestones contain lead—although it poses minimal danger to kids, since the metal remains locked inside the crystal structure of the stones. (A California toy law, which was the model for federal legislation, contains exceptions for rhinestones.) The CPSIA also requires that children's books printed before 1985 be individually tested to rule out the presence of lead paint or other hazardous materials, a provision that has angered librarians and caused some used bookstores to trash much of their vintage stock. Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association, told the Congress-covering paper The Hill, "We are an industry that looks out for children every day. We are much more concerned [with children's safety] than that commission or its general counsel." At this year's Toy Fair in New York, CPSC Assistant Executive Director John Mullen told bookmakers, "We're creating a little immunity box for you. You can sell with impunity." Shortly afterward, however, Mullen noted that if state attorneys general decided to go after publishers under the new law, there was nothing the CPSC could do.

Despite these onerous new burdens on the industry, outlets such as the New York Times editorial page remained hostile to mom-and-pop concerns, writing that the delay in implementation "has caused confusion and allowed opponents to foment needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises like libraries, resale shops and handmade toy businesses." It's hard to imagine which was more of a shock to the system of people like Leibovitz: getting the support of congressional Republicans or finding themselves in the crosshairs of a Times editorial.

Jennifer Grinnell, founder of LivingPlaying. com, posted a mini-manifesto at change.org in February, after the law went into effect. Grinnell wanted the world to know that she opposed the law, but not because she and her allies are part of any "right wing business group." She writes of a political gathering at Toy Fair 2009: "To my left sat a vegetarian from Vermont, to my right a cloth diaper retailer from Arizona. Also at the table were people from New York, Connecticut, Minnesota and three people (me included) from Massachusetts. The sad fact about larger public discussions in the US these days is how politicized almost every subject has become. In an 'us' and 'them' environment, we seem to have lost [sight] of the fact that perhaps we, the citizens who find fault with this law, actually have a legitimate point and are not trying to advance an ideology or nefarious political agenda."

Leibovitz says sales have held steady for Craftsbury Kids, even as the economy founders and she struggles to figure out which suppliers, if any, will keep her on the right side of the law. But after a baptism by fire in the political process, she's not so sure that her side will win. With a one-year grace period for most of the industry, it may be possible to convert the stated sympathies of congressmen like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) into legislation that will carve out an exception for most domestic small-scale toymakers. But Leibovitz's new cynicism shows through when she sighs and says, "There seemed to be an increase in supportive letters from representatives, but no actual changes."

Leibovitz and Secore feel betrayed by their government and suspicious of how the system works. If the law is fully enforced, perhaps two or three of the 100 toys they currently sell would be legal. "Anything is possible the way these things work. There are lobbyists and interest groups. There are riders that might have to do with someone's brother's business in Minnesota or something," Secore says. "It's pretty overwhelming to think that I might not be able to do what I do."

Correction: Malcolm Smith Motorsports is located in Riverside, California, not Riverdale.

Katherine Mangu-Ward (kmw@reason.com) is an associate editor at reason.