The Unpleasant Truth Behind Mattel's Unexpected Apology

Mattel Executive Vice President for Worldwide Operations Thomas Debrowski recently surprised consumers and policy makers alike by offering an exceptional and expansive apology to Li Changjiang, the head of China’s General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine:

Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologises personally to you, the Chinese people and all of our customers who received the toys. It is important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of these products that we recalled were the result of a flaw in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in Chinese manufacturers.

For months, Mattel has blamed rogue Chinese subcontractors for endangering American children by violating Mattel’s strict safety standards in pursuit of profit. The truth revealed hiding in plain sight by Debrowski’s apology is slightly more complex.

Time best explains the discrepancy between Debrowski’s apology and Mattel’s public position:

Of the 19.6 million toys that [Mattel] has recalled this year globally, 2.2 million were due to lead paint; the remaining 17.4 million (11.7 million in the U.S.) were toys recalled not because of lead paint but because they were made with super-strong magnets.

The United States bans the use of lead in children’s toys. Lead contamination can be rightly and exclusively traced to foreign subcontractors. Small magnets, however, which can kill children if ingested, are the result of shoddy designs.

Mattel focused its public response primarily on the smaller issue, lead contamination, which lends itself to easy scapegoating. Irresponsible Chinese subcontractors are responsible for tainting 2 million toys destined for U.S. shelves, but they by no means shoulder full responsibility for Mattel’s problems.

Slipshod Mattel designs are, as Debrowski’s apology suggests, responsible for the “vast majority” of dangers faced by American children. Mattel and the toy industry have worked overtime to distract from this unsettling and inescapable fact. As Slate superbly explains, the industry’s sham proposal for independent third-party testing would do nothing to address the design issues that are root cause of the vast majority of toy recalls.

Now that Debrowski has apologized to China, it seems only fair for Mattel’s conniver-in-chief, Robert Eckert, to explain to American consumers why his company chose to scapegoat Chinese subcontractors while keeping the true death-peddlers on Mattel’s payroll.

Why Mattel Apologized to China [Time]
(AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.