Hand-Me-Downs: Consumer Protectionism Gone Too Far?

After writing this, I’m pretty sure that this article will stir up some potentially intense comments. I encourage disagreement with my take on this situation – just keep it polite towards me and especially other commenters.

For those of you who haven’t heard the news yet, on February 10, 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act comes into effect. One of the major changes that this program will bring into play is a mandate that everything sold for children 12 and younger will have to be tested for lead and phthalates, and anything that isn’t tested (or that fails) will be considered hazardous and cannot be sold. Read more about the CPSIA at the L.A. Times and some interesting blog commentary from the fashion industry.

For new products, this isn’t an issue at all and is in fact a good thing. Many products are already being screened with such tests, and those that are not will be required to begin such testing shortly or will be pulled from the market. In terms of safety for my children, I’m quite happy with the effects of this law on new products.

Where things get interesting is with used products. Consider your local resale and thrift shop. Currently, all of their secondhand children’s clothes will have to be tested for lead and phthalates. Given that many such stores aren’t high-income operations – many are nonprofits – these shops simply cannot afford to do the testing on the children’s clothes on their shelves.

So what happens? Most thrift shops are currently not accepting any children’s clothing at all. Sometime in the next month or so, all thrift shops will have to clear all of their children’s clothing from the shelves … and send them to the landfill. (It’s worth noting that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a reprieve for products made from natural materials, which would exempt some clothes, but not nearly all clothes.)

What are the effects of this?

Used children’s clothing stores, like Kid to Kid, are basically going to be forced out of business.

With no way to easily distinguish between “safe” and “unsafe” clothes without testing every item that comes in for lead and phthalates (which is fairly expensive), these stores can’t stay in business. Either their business model will have to change or they’re done.

Children’s clothing at secondhand shops will vanish.

They simply won’t carry such products because of the liability risk, so they won’t carry such clothes for at least a few years.

Landfills are going to fill up.

The inventories at these stores will no longer be able to be sold (though they may be able to be given away). Thus, these stores are going to have to either toss their inventory or simply give it away to charities.

The big question here is are these effects worth the benefit of eliminating children’s clothes that have some chance of being tainted with lead or phthalates? This is a question that could be debated for years.

Obviously, from the singular perspective of children’s health, it’s far better to have all of their items lead and phthalate free. Even if the chance for exposure from an individual item is slight, having that chance reduced is better for the health of children. It’s worth noting that most articles of clothing that children wear are made largely out of cotton or other natural materials and are not treated with anything. Areas of concern for lead and phthalates would be clothes that were treated to be flame-retardant, clothes made out of artificial fibers, and potentially clothes that have plastic printing on them.

On the flip side of that coin is the fact that this will increase the cost of children’s clothing. Without any changes to the law, used clothing stores will no longer sell low-cost slightly used children’s clothes, a resource that many frugal and low-income families take advantage of.

Are there any useful potential compromises? One simple thing that could be done is to simply exclude used products from this law. This would require Congressional action, but would allow Goodwill (and other such secondhand stores) to continue selling low-cost children’s clothes – the availability of which is very important to families with low incomes. Similarly, the law could be amended to apply only to items made after February 10. In both cases, though, Congress would have to act on the matter, so if you feel this is important, contact your congressperson and ask that they amend the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in a satisfactory fashion.

What should a frugal parent do?

Consider the question: Are you personally concerned with this issue and your children’s clothing?

To be quite frank, it’s a reasonable decision to decide that you aren’t really concerned with this, considering your children are likely already exposed to substantially more lead and phthalates from other products besides their clothes – it may be much like worrying about a molehill when there’s a mountain nearby.

If you are concerned about this issue, you should halt your purchasing of both new and used children’s clothes until after February 10, then purchase only new clothing.

If you are not concerned about this issue, now is the time to stock up on such clothes. Hit used clothing stores hard in the next month, as many such stores will begin seriously cutting their prices on used children’s clothing as the cutoff date approaches.

If you have clothes that you’re no longer going to use, you may want to consider handing them down directly, as you’ll likely no longer be able to donate them. Look for people who could use the clothes and offer to just give them everything you can’t use – or sell them at a low bulk price.

Two questions for discussion:

Are issues like this even worth worrying about at all?

It’s a reasonable perspective to look at situations like this and simply shrug them off – there are so many safety issues out there that obsessing over a small chance of lead or phthalates in children’s clothing or toys isn’t worth your while unless you’ve been alerted to a very clear and onerous situation. At the other end of the spectrum comes a parenting philosophy where one buys only all-natural toys and such to avoid such chemicals in the home. I fall somewhere in the middle – I like to be aware of such things and I’m sure to keep an eye out for product recalls on children’s toys in our house, but this news story is not about to make me start chucking out my kid’s clothes.

Is a law like this fair?

Again, I see both sides on this one. My personal feeling is that used items should be exempted from the law for at least a year – and that items sold post-testing should have a symbol on them somewhere for easy identification. I tend to think that the law does make a lot of sense for new products, but it’s very aggressive on the used items.

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this issue (and similar consumer issues).

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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