Starbucks, Mattel, and Random Musings on Product Recalls

Here’s the story that inspired today’s blog entry: Starbucks recalls China-made mugs

Starbucks, the coffee shop chain, has become the latest US company to issue a voluntary recall of China-made products because of child safety concerns.
Following in the heels of Mattel and Hasbro, the largest US toymakers, the Seattle-based coffee company is recalling a quarter of a million plastic children’s mugs sold at its stores between May 2006 and August this year. The mugs have moulded plastic animal faces representing a ladybird, a turtle, a bunny and a chick and have a plastic top.

So, another one. I haven’t blogged about the recent spate of product recalls, mostly because I just haven’t had anything terribly enlightening to say. But here are just 2 considerations that might add perspective, or at least fodder for discussion:

1) I’m struck not by how many recalls there’ve been in the last couple of months, but by how few product recalls there are overall. It just doesn’t happen very much, given the enormous number of products on the market and the enormous complexity involved in building most of them. (Personally, I’ve only ever bought one product that’s been recalled — the battery for my PowerBook.) Think how many errors, or mistakes in judgment, each of us makes every day. What I find truly amazing is that the system (or meta-system) that manufactures, ships and markets gazillions of consumer products every day has as low an error rate as it does. Now, to be clear, I’m not at all trivializing the recent recalls. Lead paint in products aimed at kids is a very bad kind of mistake to make. But to begin to understand how that sort of thing happens, we have to think about it in the context of a massively ramified productive system, a productive system of unparalleled efficiency which surely could stand to be tweaked, but to which there is also no plausible alternative.

2) There’s been some talk about the ways in which competitive pressures (including both the drive for lower prices and the drive for higher profits) might pressure manufacturers far down the supply chain to cut corners in dangerous ways that result in product recalls. So, for example, the question is whether the kind of downward pressure that Wal-Mart exerts on prices “force” Chinese factories to seek out the cheapest paint possible for their toys — including cut-rate paint with lead in it. Tough question. On one hand, it’s easy to argue that it’s not (for example) Wal-Mart’s fault if someone down the line makes an unethical, possibly illegal, decision. On the other hand, it’s pretty predictable that sufficient pressure to cut costs is going to effectively force some desperate factory foreman to do something dodgy. But I wonder if there’s a useful contrast to be drawn between the pressure to cut costs in a product manufacturing supply-chain, on one hand, and the pressure exerted by totalitarian regimes for individuals to inform on dissident activities of friends and family members. It’s an odd comparison, I know. But in both cases, we see pressure exerted from above, to such an extent that we end up feeling sympathy for the individual who “has to” do something we would otherwise find unethical. I think I can begin to wrap my head around the supply-chain-pressure issue by thinking of it as part of a continuum of comparable situations.
Thanks to Heberto for the story that inspired this blog entry!

1 comment so far

  1. Drama Magnet on

    That is an odd comparison, but I see your point. What people need to remember also is you get what you pay for. If you’re trying to find the cheapest anything, there are risks you are going to take. It probably won’t last as long as more pricey one. People should learn to just wait and save up to buy something 2nd or 3rd cheapest.

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