David Dayton’s latest article illustrates the bad practices of the largest testing laboratories in China. It really shows that something is “broken” in the sourcing process.
The dynamics of the consumer products testing industry is driven by a few large actors (the regulators of importing countries, the mega-retailers in rich countries, and the 3 or 4 biggest certification companies). As often in China, it results in a system that is consistently gamed by the most savvy players, at the expense of all the small importers.
I listed some dark practices adopted by most of the large testing laboratories, and their perverse effects on the safety of Made-in-China goods.
High prices, to be borne by small & medium buyers only
At SGS, BV, and ITS (the three largest certification & inspection firms), the “consumer products” division is usually the most profitable… Thanks to laboratory tests. Margins are insane, simply because there is no real competition and no risk.
There are hundreds of labs, but only a handful of them have an international network and are “authorized” by large retailers or governments. In Dayton’s experience:
You can only use a testing company from a US govt approved list—and of course, those on the list charge more for their certification than companies who are not on the list. In addition to that, some large box stores also “strongly suggest” that if you want to place product in their stores you have to use a specific testing company.
Why do mega-retailers play this game? Because they benefit from it. Their suppliers are obliged to pay for testing in a specified lab… At very high prices (example: 60 USD for a simple drop test in their facilities). And in compensation, product inspections, which have to be paid by the importer, are artificially cheap (sometimes 50 USD).
No transparency of methods used
Most buyers do not realize that even the largest testing houses regularly subcontract certain jobs. A laboratory cannot do all tests on all products!
Add to this the poverty (or lack?) of internal control in these huge structures, and you get to inconsistent results:
When testing, the responsibility is on whomever requested the tests to make sure that everything is done correctly—and really, how in the world can you know if it was done correctly or not?! Unfortunately, the reality is that if there are problems in the methodology, you’ll never be told about it.
Can you imagine requesting to be present when your samples are being tested? I doubt it would be accepted, especially when tests are subcontracted.
Profit motives get in the way of proper conduct
Testing laboratories are for-profit companies. And some of them are more “flexible” than others when it helps in getting more orders.
Let’s say you work in a Chinese factory. You have been exporting the same type of products to the US and Europe. You have noticed that different testing laboratories (required by different customers) give you different test results for the exact same products. When given the choice, will you go for the toughest one? Of course not!
Dayton gives a first-hand account of this phenomenon:
We pulled and sent all the SAME samples for ALL three clients and mailed them ourselves to the two different testing companies so I can personally testify that NOTHING changed in the samples between tests. But the results were different—radically different.
If tests were really performed in controlled environments, under the relevant standards and with the right tools, this type of surprises should not be that frequent. I heard similar stories from other sources. There is something wrong, for sure.
I remember Paul Midler also denounces the ease of “circumventing third-party testing” in Poorly Made in China, a great read if you want to see how experienced factories can cheat naive importers.
No advice to small & medium clients
Some of my clients have no idea what tests they should perform on some products they buy from China. So I contacted several testing labs (who gave me different answers, of course). They gave me lists of supposedly compulsory tests. Sometimes it reached 2,000 USD in testing fees, when the whole order was only 10,000 USD…
In this case, any importer prefers to close his eyes and ask for a certification from his supplier (even though everybody knows it’s only a piece of paper with no value in 90% of cases). It is just not manageable for small orders.
So I asked for a distinction between “the tests that most often fail for this type of product” and “other tests that usually pass”. No way. QC firms run a huge liability if they advise what tests should be done, they forget one, and if it causes some safety issues after delivery. So they have an double incentive to stuff the list up.
Don’t ask a barber if you need a haircut, right? But if you want to source quality products that represent no danger, who should you turn to, if not to testing labs??
For advice related to lab testing: