When rules trump ingenuity
Last fall when Wall Street was in meltdown and the credit system was in a freeze, Wendy Powell, a Seattle mom and former software marketer, did the opposite of what the gloom-and-doom forecasts advised. She didn't hunker down. She plunged into her first business.
Seattle Times staff columnist
More than any government bailout, it's people like Wendy Powell who will lift us out of our economic doldrums.
Except it looks like her own government is going to stop her.
Last fall when Wall Street was in meltdown and the credit system was in a freeze, Powell, a Seattle mom and former software marketer, did the opposite of what the gloom-and-doom forecasts advised. She didn't hunker down. She plunged into her first business.
It's called Childish Things, in North Seattle on Holman Road west of Highway 99. It's a children's resale boutique, crammed with tiny jeans, mittens, books, smocks, mobiles and about anything else you need if you have a kid.
She buys almost all of it used, then resells it. Business, she says, has been great.
"People like the prices, and they love buying used things because it's a form of recycling," Powell said. "This is a green business."
Not in the federal government's view it isn't. On Feb. 10, barring some dramatic change in a new law, Powell's entire 5,000-item inventory will be considered a "banned hazardous substance" and may have to be chucked.
That's because the stuff in her store has never been tested for lead. A law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in August, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, requires all products for kids under age 12 to be tested for lead or pulled from the shelves. Even if it was made before the law passed.
Powell figures the cost of lead-testing her entire store would exceed the value of the merchandise. Single tests can run anywhere from $50 into the hundreds — pointless if what you sell is $7.99 used denim toddler skirts or $9.98 plush toys. So Blinky Bug Lovey Blanket ($14.95), and everything else, will become hazardous waste instead.
"It's not the economy that's going to destroy me, it's my own government," Powell said.
The law is a well-intentioned response to last year's huge recalls of lead-tainted toys. But it's so sweeping that the CEO of educational toy maker Learning Resources has dubbed Feb. 10 as "National Bankruptcy Day."
It's the toughest lead standard in the world. And it will apply to children's items made anywhere out of most anything, from cloth to wood to paper.
Any store with children's products will either have to test them or pull them, says the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In public comments to the commission, one lawyer pointed out this means "literally hundreds of millions of units in inventory and billions of dollars in value" will effectively be declared contraband.
Powell hasn't been able to get the attention of either of her U.S. senators or her Seattle congressman, so she came to me. She's not pro-lead or anti-government. In fact she's one of those moms who is so worried about kids ingesting chemicals that she won't let her kids drink out of plastic cups.
"I definitely think our standards for lead were too low," she said. "It was overdue for them to do something. But they don't need to decimate whole industries, do they?"
No, they don't. They could apply lead testing only to batches of new toys and goods. Or they could focus on the most likely menaces, such as jewelry or imported painted toys.
It's not lost on Powell that as she has started up a new business, employing three people and generally doing what she's supposed to do, the firms most culpable for savaging the American economy are fattening up at the congressional-bailout buffet.
"There isn't going to be any bailout for me," she said. "I created something out of nothing and it looks like they're going to shut it down.
"I'm at a bit of a loss to say what entrepreneurship means in American anymore."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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