Children Present: Innovators Beware

One of the most challenging areas for innovators, entrepreneurs, and businesses of any kind now is field of children’s products. Innovation fatigue has reached new heights in this area due to “external innovation fatigue”–the kind that comes when outside forces from government and others, often with the best of innovations, deliver hard-to-evade punches to the body of entrepreneurs, including some very low blows.

The problem is especially severe when the governmental forces that can shut down a business or change the playing field unexpectedly arise not from legislators accountable to the voters, but from lone appointed individuals who may not be directly accountable to anybody.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in 2008 dealt with, among other things, the problem of lead that had affected some books imported from China. Rather than address the specific issue of Chinese imports, the law sought a broad “fix” by banning lead in children’s products in general. Who could oppose that? But what it means in practice is that millions of toys and children’s books were unnecessarily discarded–wasted–by small businesses around the country because they could not afford to have lead testing done for the products in their inventory. For used products, there weren’t technically required to do testing, but they still had to comply with the law forbidding them from selling products with lead above a certain threshold. In practice, it was test or toss. I know of local entrepreneurs in Wisconsin who had to discard a lot of products.

For inventors and entrepreneurs, the added cost of certifying that your product is lead free can be one more tax that stands between success and failure, even when you have diligently avoided working with companies where lead could possibly be a problem.

At least the lead ban had its roots in law from Congress. The most recent ban affecting children’s products comes from one unelected leaders of an agency who has made tough new regulations on children’s cribs a top priority. In the past decade, 32 children died from defective children’s cribs with drop-down sides. Now drop-down sides will be banned in 2011, making it illegal to make, sell, or distribute them. (See “Baby Asleep in a Drop-Side Crib? Soon They’ll Be Banned” at Any death is regrettable, but 32 deaths from tens of millions of users is remarkably small. Chances are the deaths are not evenly distributed among companies, yet a blanket ban on a product punishes all, including those who had a flawless safety record and had delivered innovations that made their beds more reliable and safer than the competition. Now they are out of luck, as are the millions of parents (myself included) who have found safe and sturdy drop-down beds to be a big help in safely taking care of children and grand-children.

30 deaths across a decade: all tragic, but consider those numbers in light of the risk we face every time we take a step, turn a corner, plug in a product, or take a bite of food. Far more children die each year from salmonella–do we ban chicken and meats? There are about 30,000 deaths a year in the US for accidental poisoning and about 40,000 automobile deaths a year, with thousands of children in both categories. 3.5 million children aged 14 years and under suffer medically treated sports injuries each year, with many more deaths than cribs could ever cause. Do we ban sports? About 50,000 people a year go to the hospital because of skateboards, with many more deaths than cribs. Among useful but dangerous products, consider lawnmowers, where over 150 people die each year (that’s 5 decades worth of deaths from cribs at our current rate). Time for a ban?

There are hidden costs and even injuries for safety measures that are too strict. Alternative products and alternative behaviors have their own set of consequences. Will parents now be tempted to let kids sleep on beds or without the enclosed protection of cribs because the new generation of cribs are too expensive or too inconvenient? Is there any guarantee that children nationwide will be safer because of the ban?

I love kids and want them safe, but am most comfortable when informed parents take responsibility for that. When one person in an unelected position can make broad new rules that wipe out products that millions of people have found to be safe and effective, this changing of the rules midstream is a terrible disincentive for innovation in children’s products and innovation in general. Why bother with making the safest, most innovative drop-down crib when you’re going to be lumped with inferior products and stuck with a blanket ban that wipes our your business? It’s easy to do in the name of the children, but there are a lot of more pressing problems that children face, and better ways to deal with them than having one regulator issue laws without direct accountability to the people. Chalk one up for innovation fatigue.

Anytime is a tough time to be an innovator, but it’s especially tough when government gets overly involved in helping without considering the unintended consequences of the help, or the opportunity cost from helping in areas where help isn’t really needed. The quest to protect children is one area where the temptation to be overzealous can be especially strong. Who could be against protecting children?

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