Mattel Corp. and Little Tikes Co. offer perfect examples of what can happen when the plastics industry is faced with an emotionally charged challenge.
Both companies recently disclosed that they plan to change the formulation of their soft teething toys because of concerns about phthalates. Mattel of El Segundo, Calif., announced it was searching for an alternative to phthalates in PVC teething toys. Hudson, Ohio-based Little Tikes went a step further, deciding to phase out PVC in teethers, replacing it with a polyolefin blend.
First of all, we should say that we don't believe industry critics who say this is the beginning of the end of the vinyl industry. Teethers are a relatively small, niche application for PVC, and the public appears to be in no hurry to give up vinyl siding, PVC pipe or vinyl flooring.
Based on their public statements, it appears that neither company decided that PVC or phthalates were unsafe. (This wasn't the same story with Nike Inc., which cited safety issues in its decision a month ago to phase PVC out of its shoe-making operations.) But the fact is, these toy makers and others now face the possibility that they will lose business if they don't find an alternative material.
Two European countries already have banned phthalates in teething toys, and at least one more has plans to do so.
The PVC industry once again can argue that science is on its side. A new study, just released in the Netherlands, indicates that the toys in question are safe.
But the business decisions made by Little Tikes and Mattel were based on emotions and intangibles, not scientific debate. They're actually quite similar to McDonald's call seven years ago to abandon the polystyrene clamshell package for its burgers.
The plastics industry must come up with an effective way to win these kinds of battles. The best defense, of course, is to make sure these decisions never come up at all. The industry advertising program sponsored by the American Plastics Council seems to be effective in changing public attitudes about plastics — a good first step. But beyond that, what else?
First, make sure that products are unquestionably safe. In cases where they are not, work with deliberate speed to make them so. Safety is not an issue for debate.
And nearly as important, redouble efforts to educate the public, customers and the plastics industry itself about the importance and safety of plastic products. That requires money and effort, but the payoff should be well worth it.
Finally, despite the failure in this case, there is a role for scientific, peer-reviewed, credible studies. Just keep in mind that they won't always be enough.