COVID-19: What effect on toy safety (consultants)?

Antony Kirrane from ICE Compliance on the effect of covid-19 and the safety of toys sold in the EU

A lot has been written about the possible impact of covid-19 on toy sales and on manufacturers and retailers. But the toy ecosystem is broader than that. As toy safety is always Toy Industries of Europe’s priority, we also wanted to hear from an independent toy safety expert. We spoke with Antony Kirrane from ICE Compliance who has almost 20  years of experience in the toy business. We asked him about the impact on his own work and whether the crisis may also have an effect on the safety of toys sold in Europe.

Antony, we’ve read and heard quite a lot in different markets about the impact of covid-19 on toy manufacturers and retailers. What about the effect on independent toy safety experts like yourself? 

It’s a concerning time, there is no question that the impact of the virus protection measures on global markets is going to be huge. And where manufacturers struggle, their service providers will struggle – labs, consultants even logistics have challenges of both reduced business and a shift in the way the market operates. However, for me as a service provider, there have also been opportunities. Manufacturers are turning their hand to new things, we hear stories about people volunteering to make PPE and similar products. I’ve had one or two customers that have contacted me asking about different regulations, different products, looking at PPE, hand sanitizers. At least one of my clients does a lot of online retail and their work has boomed. The public has stayed at home, the home improvement segment seems to be doing very well indeed.

So I do worry about the economy, if my clients are struggling financially it’s concerning that eventually I will struggle but currently I’ve been quite busy dealing with these new opportunities.

It’s also important to realise that the regulators aren’t stopping their work: in the UK the government are still looking at connected toys, plastic taxes and of course Brexit. So that work isn’t really stopping for me, there’s still plenty to do because the wheels of government are still turning.

With different countries taking different covid-19 measures, we know the effect on companies can be quite disparate.  But what about the different categories of toys: it is especially the ‘educational games’, the ‘society games’, the creative toys and outdoor toys (for your own backyard) that we’ve seen surge. Are there any particular safety issues to watch out for with those kinds of toys? 

We’re living in a time – luckily – where the vast majority of toy products on the market are safe. We have in Europe the strictest regulatory regime anywhere in the world and as a result you will get some very safe products – provided the rules have been complied with.

Family games are obviously great for times like these because they bring a family together, they bring skills, interpersonal skills and it is rules-based play. It’s great that those products are booming. Family games are probably some of the ‘safest’ products that are available.  They’re family based, they’re simple, adults and children sitting together.

Garden games and especially things like water play, can come with more risk. So what I’m advising is: keep child supervision up. That kind of play brings its own dangers. Make sure that whenever the kids are in the pool, there is an adult outside with them, keeping an eye on them. Kids are very inventive, they can come up with unforeseen ways of playing that can only be prevented by proper adult supervision. So that’s what I would recommend, especially as kids are spending more time in the garden these days: make sure they’re supervised especially when they’re playing outside.

Many forecasts predict that the lockdown-era surge to e-commerce will remain high post-lockdown. In terms of safety, what are the main differences in buying in a physical shop and buying online?

Most toys placed on the market are safe these days but unfortunately the toy sector is one that struggles with a lot of rogue players: people in the industry that don’t follow the rules despite us having the strictest regime in the world.

In a traditional toy shop you will find products that have gone through a whole series of checks, first and foremost by the manufacturer, then by the party who imported them into Europe, possibly by customs. The retailer will also be checking that the products are compliant because they have a duty of care and regulations will apply to them as they sell on to consumers. And there will be market surveillance activities: I’ve mentioned customs but at store shelf, there are agents that will go and take samples on a random basis from time to time. That’s how the traditional model is built up and how, traditionally, product safety is enforced in all the European countries.

What this new mechanism of e-commerce brings though is a more direct way of selling to consumers. Factories are often based overseas these days, it’s no secret that the bulk of manufacturing is in China but it can be anywhere in the world. E-commerce gives an opportunity for those parties based overseas to sell directly to the European consumer, in the process skipping all kinds of regulations as they don’t apply directly to persons that are based outside of the European Union. The product also skips customs checks and skips market surveillance checks.

The regulations haven’t really caught up with this new way of shopping, and unfortunately that has given a hiding place to the rogue players that we see in the toy sector and many other sectors. Because the regulations and checks are lacking or they don’t apply directly to them, they are able to skip through this and sell their non-compliant products directly to the consumer. Sadly the consumer isn’t really aware that this is happening. This new model is quite a concern for me, I have to say. I’m sure many online sellers are doing a good job but there are too many who are not. Frequently I see unsafe, untested or counterfeit products being offered for sale online, shipping all over the world.

What’s the most important advice you would give to people buying toys online?  Can we better educate them?

Simple advice is “know the source”. We just talked about comparing the traditional bricks and mortar shops with online sales. If you know the source of your online sale, it is likely to protect you quite a lot. What I mean by that is: if you buy from the online store of your favourite reputable retailer, then you’re quite likely to get the same level of service, regulatory checks, legal compliance than you would from just going into their store. If you’re sure that the product is coming from a reputable manufacturer directly, you’re also more likely to be getting the same level of compliance that you would by physically going into a shop you trust.

But what we have in these online market places: they’re providing a service to third parties, people who aren’t really checked I’m afraid, the market places don’t really know who they are. So when you’re looking at even the big websites that offer these online services, you should very carefully check to see who it’s coming from: are you buying a toy directly from a well-known brand name or are you buying it from a source that is less well-known? Especially watch out when the seller is based overseas because those sources don’t go through the same rigour of check that you would get with products that have been imported into Europe using the traditional model. My advice is to always buy from reputable retailers and just make sure you always know who you are buying from especially if you’re using those online marketplaces.

In general, what positive evolution do you see around toy safety and where do you think the most urgent action is still needed?

As a technical expert I can always point to room for improvement! But seriously, the rules in Europe are really strict and they are excellent at protecting consumers. I think that the framework, despite the gaps we talked about, has generally been a great success. I personally work with the technical committees and working groups that work on the safety standards for toys and I can say that’s a huge success. It’s a multi-stakeholder group including enforcement authorities, consumer advocates, manufacturers, laboratories, retailers etc… There’s many interested parties and they come together to design these safety standards that really just keep moving to improve the safety of toys.

I can say we’re still working on it as well, this work never stops! We’re working at the moment on the latest iteration of the safety standards for chemicals, we’re working on the latest iteration of the  physical and mechanical safety standards. We’ve just published the latest European standard for safety of electrical toys and yet there’s a meeting organised later this summer to start work on the next version! I would say that’s a major positive for toy safety.

Millions of dollars are spent every year by reputable manufacturers making sure their new designs are safe and compliant. The effort needs to be matched by enforcement. Government budgets around Europe are stretched and, as a result of the economic impacts of covid-19 budgets are likely to be stretched further. I’d urge governments and regulators that, before considering regulating any further they consider the resource needed for enforcement.

Finally, I’d like to see greater transparency and accountability for online marketplaces. At the minute consumers aren’t sure who they are buying from. I’d also like to ensure that someone can be held accountable for the most serious issues with products safety.