Monday, April 03, 2006

Do Industry Associations Matter Anymore?

Later this week I’m attending the Annual Meeting of the U.S. Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA). Participants include finished product manufacturers and marketers with operations in the US as well as component suppliers. I used to look forward to this event each year as an important chance to get together with key customers, other businesses and friends in the pencil and writing instrument industry. Coming from a family business background I can remember attending one of the former Pencil Makers Association meetings with my parents when I was still in High School and later after college before I had joined the family business.

It always seemed somewhat like a family reunion with a good combination of sports and social activities intermixed with our business sessions. Very friendly long term relationships. Everyone always seemed to have a good time in addition to active participation in what were regarded as valuable educational programs and committee sessions of the association focused on technical, product safety, trade or governmental regulatory issues.

Like many industry associations ours has suffered declining membership and industry participation resulting from trends of industry consolidation, movement of manufacturing off-shore, cost containment pressures, conflicting business interests of member companies, etc. This has already lead to the merger about 10 years ago of the Pencil Makers Association into the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and since then we’ve continued to lose membership.

An important by-product of these trends is the change in the group of meeting participants. First, there are fewer participants from each company due to cost containment reasons and people tend to schedule in and out quickly minimizing the time commitment. Fortunately, for me the meeting is being held in San Francisco this year so it’s close enough to home that it doesn’t require the normal time commitment of traveling to the East coast.

More importantly participation was historically heavily weighted to the business owners who were the top executives and decision makers in the industry. Now larger companies or even smaller companies who have been absorbed by some other diversified group send VP or sometimes lower level managers if they participate at all. For example, I think it’s been at least 10 years since the President of either Sanford or Dixon attended personally.
Committee activity, historically the hallmark of strength for our association, involved the active participation of numerous members for direction of the work of the Association. This function has declined and generally committees now only meet face to face as part of the Association Board meeting itself once per year with a phone conference here and there in between.

I currently Chair the Pencil Section that deals with issues specific to the pencil industry. I recently sent out an email to the committee members proposing we move forward with a program the Association staff has looked into to increase and improve promotion of the PMA Certification Seal. I’d like to see the Committee request the Association board to fund the program since in my view is the one program the association currently offers that has potential to have some positive impact for members if supported. (see my August 2005 Timberlines Post: What’s the Value of Pencil Certification?) In any event, my email asked for feedback and input on this proposal. I got one response and that came from the legal counsel to the association, not from a manufacturer.

In the meantime I remain interested in consumer feedback on this particular issue. Do you place any more value on such third party certification programs, industry sponsored or not? Do you view a PMA, EN71 (European standard) or ACMI certified product as safer than one without one of these certifications? Does it bear any relevance in your purchase decision at all?

Finally, in a further effort to address the challenges of relevance as an association, this year we decided to focus the upcoming business sessions on International trade issues faced by our industry. We have invited participants from other Writing Instrument Manufacturing groups from around the world to this year’s meeting. We will have differing levels of representation from the associations in Japan, Europe, and Japan. We’ve scheduled four different speakers on a range of topics as well as an association round table to discuss how each association works to support its membership.

Will this lead to increased cooperation and coordination on global issues of product specifications and safety standards, counterfeiting issues, category marketing and promotion, etc? Will it be a first step to some form of International Federation of Writing Instrument Manufacturers? I’m skeptical at this point given the historically insular nature of each of these associations to focus on issues specific to their own region or country. What is clear to me is that US based manufacturers associations probably in many industries will continue to struggle without embracing and leading a broader international focus and collaboration with peer associations throughout the world.

For now our company continues to participate in the association feeling it’s better to try to show some leadership to improve the member benefits and support to those of our customers who remain members. Still each year when that invoice shows up to renew our membership I question the relevance and think of 10 other ways I could likely spend these funds to have a more direct positive impact on our business. 2006 will be a year of decision for me however as it’s simply too much expense to justify without seeing a positive trend of improved benefits from membership.


Anonymous said...

Woodchuck, I have a confession to make. While most of the art materials I own are certified by ASTM or similar, it's something that seems to be a side-effect of purchasing quality products. And, worse, I am not nearly so stringent about purchasing quality products when it comes to general writing instruments. Are the multi-colored, multi-branded gel pens overflowing from the jar on my desk certified by anyone? Maybe? I threw out the packaging long ago. Similar ignorance reigns as to any certifications or associations held by the pencils sharing jar space with the pens.

It’s a confession because, as someone who uses writing instruments daily and who knows something about materials safety issues, I should know. I should look for such things. I should encourage manufacturers who follow such standards by purchasing their products over the products of manufacturers who either don’t bother to follow the standards/don’t bother to specify what if any standards they do follow.

I believe my complacency is a result of controlled risk. There are so many risks, from so many sources, that the human brain can’t handle them all. So, we don’t think about the ones we perceive to be “minor” or unlikely. (It’s how we can get into a car without completely freaking out over accident statistics; how we can live in cities without obsessing over the carcinogen output numbers; how we can venture out of our beds at all, really.) My pencil seems unlikely to kill me. Therefore, I don’t worry about it.

All that said, I think that professional associations like WIMA and certifications like PMA are important. And based on my own earlier confession, I would encourage you to raise consumer awareness as to what those seals are and what it means if you see one or do not see one. Otherwise people are going to continue to only notice the seals when they’re at home, removing the wrapping from their latest purchases. “Oh, look, it’s got that funny PMA seal, too.”

TQuid said...

As a consumer in very environment-conscious Vancouver, I can tell you that the FSC brand is probably worth a great deal--organic, environmentally friendly, animal-testing free, etc., are all big sellers here. I don't mean to minimize the ethical importance of the choices the various certifications of these things represent. But they are, after all, a selling point, and generally a selling point that speaks to a more affluent demographic.

I believe there is a certain safety level that one gets by living in a litigous society such as that in North America; there is perhaps a common perception that evildoers in the world of consumer products will get the pants sued off them, so they won't take the risk.

However, I also perceive that such risks mean less to businesses not based in North America. The long arm of the law has a lot harder time reaching them. Canada has recently seen scandals around children's toys with high lead content, dollar-store toothpaste with dangerously high levels of flouride, and other stuff I'm sure I'm forgetting.

It seems to me this boils down to image and branding. If you can make caring for the consumer's future by good environmental stewardship and for the consumer's health with product safety part of the brand of those certifications, that would potentially be a huge win. But probably you know that, and know the expenses (which no doubt are heavy) better than I, an armchair market theoriest, do.

Still, if you can fit bragging about these things onto a product box, I really do think it's worth it. It doesn't take many words to say that your product provides superior writing, but to many people, "a pencil is a pencil." (Horrors!) I have yet to see a writing instrument make a strong claim, though, that it's looking out for my future and my health. That gets my attention and I think it could in domestic and international markets; those producers in Asia are likely to know they have occasional image problems of being cheap, second-choice, etc. Getting on board with an international certification might be appealing for them.

I hope this helps. I appreciate your transparent way of doing business and really would like to see your efforts thrive.


Slywy said...

It's important to me, and I suspect to writers and artists who use pencils, but in this increasingly Walmartized society, it's probably not important to most people, who want large quantities of stuff cheap. We are pretty two-faced in some ways; we do seem to want a cleaner, better environment, but our buying choices often do not reflect that desire.

Parents might be interested in something that very clearly says there are no toxic chemicals in the product.

Unknown said...

i am going to say that mostly to me industry certification does not matter if the cool industry certified product is a product that i can't BUY because everything in the damn store is bought by store buyers on most-common-denominator criteria. i go to the stores around me in LA, which is a pretty big city, and the only difference between most stores is the sign on the door. so, i end up buying at kinokuniya in downtown LA, or i buy off the internet. why would i care about whether or not something i cannot easily buy is certified? that's my question.

basically almost everything in the writing universe belongs to sanford/rubbermaid, and you can TELL the minute that they acquire something because it all basically becomes papermate. now. in that environment, why would certification matter?


WoodChuck said...

Thanks all for your very interesting and thoughtful input whether it's been here on Timberlines or over at Pencil Revolution. Keep it comming.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think certification is a great shortcut we can use if we have principles which dictate or influence our buying decisions.

For instance, I never buy things made by companies that test on animals. While Sanford owning everything is not great at a quality level, they do have a corporate stance against animal testing, and that means something to me.

But there is no third-party certification that a product is not tested on animals, really. There is the famous leaping bunny logo from the Coalition for Consumer Information for Cosmetics ( But there are no standards or rules across the industry. So one could say, "This finished product not tested on animals" and have an image of a bunny next to it and imply that there is some connection with the Coalition and that there is NO animal testing involved in the making of that product. I'm not sure if they still do this, but St. Ives used to have this on their bottles -- despite the fact that their parent company does in fact test on animals. I wrote to them about this, and they sent me an official document wherein they said that any really safe method of testing things such as what they sell requires testing on animals and that anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Of course, if they believe that, why put anything on the bottle about animal testing just because the finished product is not actually tested on animals? And if that St. Ives face scrub is not tested on animals, and they are telling you that only things tested on animals are safe, are they admitting to selling what they would themselves consider a potentially unsafe product?

Back to the point, if one is concerned about animal testing, you have to do background research yourself into companies and their policies and practices. You can't even use the lists compiled by PETA anymore because they have been incorrect for at least several years (last time I looked at it, they still say that PaperMate is owned by Gillette, but if they updated it, great!).

Of course, with some kind of certification policy, companies would have to be willing to go through with it. And I don't really think that enough people in our society are concerned with the issue of animal testing (not that it's bad that way; it might be bad if we all agreed on everything) for companies to really have any reason to seek that kind of certification.

On the other hand, we have a very unique view, especially in the US and Germany, of the natural world that we inherit from the likes of the Transcendentalists, John Muir and the legislation* that those of use born after the Endangered Species Act and the EPA grew up with. And that is that there is a kind of moral value to nature and to protecting it. Polls show that most of us in the US consider ourselves "environmentalists" of some kind. But, like Diane points out (very correctly, I think), few of us really purchase in accordance with what we believe we believe. I think that a lot of this is due to ignorance and the fact that it would simply take too much effort and time to figure out what goes into the things we buy and what their production does to the planet. However, having a seal or statement of certification can cut out this ignorance, and we can see what happens when people know that, say, the nameless pencils they are buying at a gift shop are made from wood that was not replaced after it was cut down.

I think that things like FSC and PMA certification would greatly sidestep having to make a blind decision. And certification that a product is not toxic will certainly help anyone who is concerned about this issue when they purchase things. My brother in Maryland likes it when I send him non-toxic pencils because he has a baby pug dog who likes to chew his pencils (especially GRIP 2001s for some reason). It would be nice if he could tell from the box if something is non-toxic and environmentally friendly, though, with a good deal of confidence in the accuracy of such a statement.

If our buying practices that run counter to what we purport to believe are really based on ignorance (and, by golly, I sure hope so), then reliable certification is a very good thing and can be very helpful to people who think about what they buy. But, like Diane also says, those of us who think about more than just price are becoming a smaller group.

[*Mostly due to efforts of groups like the Sierra Club.]

Slywy said...

St. Ives used to have this on their bottles -- despite the fact that their parent company does in fact test on animals. I wrote to them about this, and they sent me an official document wherein they said that any really safe method of testing things such as what they sell requires testing on animals and that anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Of course, if they believe that, why put anything on the bottle about animal testing just because the finished product is not actually tested on animals?

I took their word for it that it wasn't tested on animals. Yikes.

Slywy said...

P.S. There are so many choices, too, so it's not hard to choose to use a product not tested on animals (or one that is sustainable, forest friendly, non-toxic, etc.). Andy Rooney used to comment about all the choices in the supermarket. When I was a kid, there were maybe a dozen or so sugary kids' cereal. Now there are almost that many varieties of Cheerios alone. But in spite of all these choices, it also seems there are fewer companies making them -- the example of Sanford owning the U. S. pencil universe. Which is why I've started looking for products from smaller companies, things like Organic Valley (cooperative), Phil's Eggs (cage free), and Palominos. Even for tea, I found a small company run by a dietitian whose tea I like.

But back to animal testing, I think Avon and Revlon are still not testing on animals, so there are, for example, personal care choices that are readily available and economical. I'm sure that's likely for a lot of products.

As for certification, you probably have to have a publicity campaign and keep it out there, or no one will know what it means.

Anonymous said...

I think certification is a good thing, but I would want to know what the certification means. Does it mean that the pencil is environmentally friendly, that the lead grade is what it says it is, etc? It would help to know that. In general, though, I think certification elevates industry standards, and THAT is a good thing.

Sebastian said...

I would agree with John Dooney that it matters what the certification indicates. I don't normally associate animal protection with writing instruments (and I'm pretty sure that it was a recycled plastic pencil that just broke my brand new pencil sharpener). But I would like to see a seal that indicated that a pencil had withstood normal use without breaking every couple lines.