By  on August 20, 2007

WASHINGTON — Mattel just gave the fashion industry a wake-up call.

The toy company's massive recall of unsafe products made in China is a warning flare for apparel brands that source from outside factories but remain responsible to retailers and consumers for the quality of their goods.

The revelation last week that subcontractors veered away from product guidelines and used lead paint on 436,000 toy trucks from Mattel was just the latest in a series of mishaps at Chinese manufacturers that has caused consumer scares in products such as baby bibs, cat food and toothpaste.

Safety issues so far haven't impacted the apparel sector, but they always remain a concern given the close contact people have with their clothing. There are some flammability issues, particularly in children's apparel, and some dyes and other processing chemicals are prohibited for health reasons. Chinese imports at times have been guilty of mislabeling fabric ingredients, but the result has not been a recall or safety violations.

What the latest scares bring to the fore is the broader branding and supply chain issues, made all the more important given China's role as factory for the world, with a 32.4 percent share of the U.S. apparel import market.

For one thing, the recalls might leave a lasting impact on consumers' perception of Chinese-made goods in general, particularly given the nature of the products involved. A mom who has thrown out her cat food, checked where her toothpaste was made and taken away a favorite toy from her child might well take a second look at labels for country of origin as she shops to replenish her wardrobe.

"The impact of the recalls is undoubtedly going to affect the American psyche," said brand consultant Catherine Sadler, who was formerly chief marketing officer at AnnTaylor Stores Corp. "The fact that there could be a lack of control for vulnerable innocents that could affect our children, this is a hot button. This is the kind of issue that does permeate through, that does break the clutter. It has an emotional wallop."

The U.S. government might act to ease consumers' shaky nerves. Congress likely will look more closely into safety regulations when lawmakers return to Washington next month. There is no telling what impact this could have on importers or whether it could increase costs or paperwork.

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