QCA Winding Down

For the last 12 years, QCA has shone a light not only on product safety but also social responsibility, product quality, environmental stewardship, supply chain security and the corporate policies that support compliance with these principles. It is with much gratitude and appreciation for the promotional products industry and all the suppliers and distributors we’ve worked with throughout the years that QCA makes the following announcement.

In April, accredited supplier members voted to begin the process of winding down the organization. From that point, no new applications were accepted, while all current members continued to be supported through August 1 when operations officially ceased.

Several factors contributed to the decision to cease operations.

1. QCA has done an excellent job in educating Accredited Suppliers on product safety and compliance, enabling many to build and manage effective product safety and compliance programs.

2. QCA raised the awareness of product safety and compliance for the industry. Comparing today vs. 12 years ago, there is substantially more information available on this topic. Many promotional products suppliers have created their own processes around product safety and compliance. This is a testament to the great work and service QCA delivered, not only to its participants but to the industry overall.

3. Industry consolidation continues to drive a reduction in the total number of supplier participants, placing additional pressure on our ability to maintain and grow the organization.

“QCA drove the appetite for product safety and responsible sourcing with the idea that compliance wasn’t just good business but it is good for business,” says David Clifton, chief marketing officer for QCA Accredited Supplier alphabroder and president of QCA’s Board of Directors. “This appetite fostered innovation that made companies stronger. In a way, QCA is declaring victory on a job well done and leaving the industry in a much safer and more compliant state than when the organization joined it—and that was always the mission.”


QCA: A Retrospective

From June 6, 2008 when a group of 14 suppliers agreed to work together to establish industry standards, much has been accomplished. QCA solidified its status as an independent body on May 29, 2009 when it filed articles of incorporation for not-for-profit status.

At QCA’s inception, there were no standards for product safety nor compliance, in general, within the promotional products industry. To address this need, we developed a comprehensive program based upon a combination of state and national laws, international standards and industry-accepted best practices that are recognized for their strength and effectiveness. These guidelines not only addressed product safety but also product quality, social responsibility, supply chain security and environmental stewardship. These became the five pillars of compliance that continue to serve as the foundation of QCA today.

While the initial QCA Supplier Accreditation Program was built 12 years ago, we continually updated the criteria to align with new laws and any revised standards so participants always had access to the most current information. Because of the comprehensive nature of our program and the fact that it was based on the most current laws and standards, it quickly became the gold standard of the industry.

Naturally, suppliers have a significant role in product safety and responsible sourcing, but distributors have a part to play as well. To meet the needs of distributors, we created the QCA Distributor Certification Program with the goal to further strengthen the supply chain and help distributors better meet the needs of their corporate clients. Together the Supplier Accreditation Program and Distributor Certification Program complemented one another to provide the highest level of collaboration between suppliers and distributors/decorators and strengthen their relationships for an even sturdier supply chain.

Throughout our 12-year history, QCA has worked with nearly 100 industry firms to help them build their compliance programs, deliver safer and more responsibly sourced merchandise and elevate the overall perception of the promotional products industry.

Even though we believe there is still work to be done, there is much to be proud of in terms of the impact made on the individual companies as well as the industry as a whole.


QCA’s Impact On The Industry

With the vast number of products and decoration methods within the promotional products industry, developing a comprehensive compliance program is no small task. Our goal from the beginning was to give members the framework they needed to make the process more manageable while having the flexibility to tailor the program to their specific business model.

We wanted to remove complexity and streamline processes, allowing members to consistently implement protocols so that the products that reach consumers’ hands are safe. Based on the feedback received throughout the years, we’ve been able to achieve our objectives. And we’re pretty darn proud of that.


Creating A Culture Of Compliance

For many suppliers, going through QCA Accreditation permanently weaves product safety and compliance into the company culture.

“QCA created a new mindset and higher standard for what is expected in terms of quality, safety, social and environmental compliance in the promotional product industry,” says Anita Campbell, compliance specialist for BIC Graphic. “By encouraging members to build their brand image and reputation in superior compliance, QCA helped us bring product safety and responsible sourcing into our everyday culture.”

Mike Fey, president of Fey Promo, agrees. “QCA completely changed our commitment to product safety and compliance,” he says. “Our participation elevated our knowledge and formalized processes, plus it brought the issues to life and made compliance real for our team members. The discipline and consistency it took to become Accredited is now a permanent and lasting part of our operations.”

The same is true at Hit Promotional Products. “QCA Accreditation helped Hit develop the backbone of our product development, quality control, product safety and responsible sourcing programs,” says Nathan Cotter, Hit’s compliance manager. “Be it the development of programs, processes and controls or the ongoing maintenance of those programs along with the expectations in our supply chain, this has become how Hit as a company does business.”

Joe Johnson, director of operations for WOVIN Brands, says creating a culture of compliance helped his company make great strides. “When we made our commitment to QCA, we took a huge leap forward,” he says. “QCA enhanced our commitment to safety and compliance by giving us a tremendous masters-level course, which increased our knowledge as well as provided benchmarks and best practices. QCA gave definition and actions to our commitment, which allowed us to make significant advancements. QCA helped us learn how to live compliance and product safety every day.”


Shortening The Learning Curve & Accelerating Growth

By having a framework such as the QCA Accreditation Program, it is possible to dramatically shorten the learning curve when building a compliance program. This was the case for Chris Pearson, director of compliance and overseas operations for Spector & Co., who was hired when the company was right in the middle of the QCA Accreditation process.

“Being brought on board to finalize and qualify as an Accredited Supplier was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “The process caused us to give our compliance programs a hard look and challenge the status quo. It highlighted all the things the company did well yet did not hide the things that needed to be worked on. Even though it was stressful, having completed the process within the year of my joining sped up what I had set out to do and mitigated the challenges the company faced—by at least two years! We are a better company because of it.”

In addition to being able to quickly level up the learning experience, QCA Accreditation also directly contributed to significant company growth for Chameleon Like.

“When Chameleon Like started the Accreditation process five years ago, the company was half of the size it is now,” says president Pierre Martichoux. “As a small supplier ($5M revenue then, $10M now), it was a real undertaking. The biggest impact of becoming Accredited was that the QCA requirements led us to redesign our entire inventory management and, to some degree, our production process. By introducing traceability and quality control at all levels, it facilitated our growth, in essence minimizing the typical growing pains.”


Offering A Unique Experience

While QCA has been the only accreditation organization specifically targeted to the promotional products industry, there are others that deal exclusively with apparel, workers’ rights, environmental issues, etc. Michael Cross, compliance manager for American Ad Bag, found the experience with QCA to be much different from other accreditation organizations.

“Before starting the QCA Accreditation Program, we expected more of what was the norm in past experiences when seeking accreditation from other organizations or third-party agency audits,” he explains. “In these instances, the process felt more like a one-way dialogue to acceptance in which information and existing procedures were either approved or denied.

“Early on in the QCA assessment process, we found this was not the case,” he continues. “The insights, comments and information went both ways. Moreover, during the weekly conversations, our plans, policies, procedures and documents were reviewed, improved upon, updated and even added to. This dialogue gave our company an operational and compliance blueprint that not only works now but will continue to work in the future.”


Changing The Way Business Is Done

One of the most gratifying aspects of working one-on-one with suppliers is seeing the kind of growth they achieve by going through QCA Accreditation.

“QCA has played a big part in where we are today,” says Christi Policht, global operations manager/product safety specialist for BAG MAKERS, Inc. “The gap analysis helped us discover the holes in our programs. Where we had policies and procedures in place, QCA helped us get everything documented. Where policies and procedures were missing, QCA helped us get them written and in place. Anyone can say their products are compliant, but we know that we can back up our claims with the right documentation because of QCA.”

Sarah Parsons, vice president of systems and customer experience for iClick, also understands the importance of documenting the company’s business processes. “The QCA Accreditation process helped us codify documentation to support our practices,” she explains. “The value in documenting our procedures is far-reaching and has enabled us to scale and grow. The QCA Accreditation process was well worth the effort.”

But there’s more to QCA Accreditation than documentation (although this is an important element). For some, going through the program revolutionized company processes.

“QCA completely changed the way we procure product,” says Trevor Gnesin, president of Logomark. “We have made a commitment to maintain these procedures as ongoing not only for us but for our vendors as well.”

Heather Garner, CEO of Foamworx, agrees. “Taking the factory to this level of compliance would not have been possible without the guidance of QCA,” she explains. “We are a stronger company having gone through the QCA Accreditation process.”

Carissa Roepke, compliance specialist for IMAGEN Brands, remembers the support received while going through the program. “Throughout the years, QCA has proven to be a huge asset to our company,” she says. “The organization has provided exceptional training and guidance, putting our company on the right path to not only social responsibility but product safety as well.”

For PCNA, which had a robust compliance program prior to QCA, the value came in the form of third-party audits. “The biggest value PCNA realized was that QCA acted as an independent set of eyes,” explains David Nicholson, president of PCNA. “The audits provided us with an independent look into the effectiveness of our compliance program, highlighted areas that we could further enhance and validated the effectiveness of our current programs. The audits keep a heavy focus on the compliance program, enabling us to remain vigilant, make corrections and maintain our high level of compliance year after year.”


QCA’s Lasting Legacy

With these kinds of transformations, what will QCA’s lasting legacy be? PCNA’s Nicholson, shared his thoughts:

“QCA originated out of a need within the industry to address growing product safety concerns,” he says. “It was at a time when the industry had no clear standards nor any central organization to promote and drive awareness of compliance issues. QCA has permanently raised the bar on the compliance standards across the industry as well as building a supplier, distributor and end-user awareness of the importance of compliance and brand protection.”

Joel Freet, CEO at Cutter & Buck, adds: “QCA came at a pivotal moment in our history, providing the necessary guidance and framework to advance our compliance package into the 21st century. QCA was a groundbreaking effort to harmonize so many separate efforts into one cohesive compliance program that could be understood within and outside our industry.”

For Cheron Coleman, vice president of private brand product development and global supply chain for alphabroder, QCA’s legacy is about leadership and setting new standards. “Because QCA took the leadership role in setting robust compliance standards, establishing an effective compliance program became the new normal and developed into a necessity in conducting business in the promotional products space,” she says.

“Since laws and regulations continually change, compliance is a constantly evolving process,” she continues. “Yesterday’s risk may differ from today’s risk. Working with QCA elevated alphabroder’s compliance program and increased our effectiveness at minimizing risk. We will continue to benefit from this knowledge for years to come.”

Gemline’s Blahnik notes the importance of the work surrounding supply chain living on as QCA’s legacy. “QCA helped set up many companies’ supply chain responsibility programs and shape many others,’ he says. “This will live on as companies that were part of QCA continue to follow these principles. The best practices and guidance we received through the Accreditation Program was tremendous, and I encourage everyone to continue looking at these practices and model their own program after them.”

WOVIN Brands’ Johnson points out that in addition to the standards QCA set, there was also community. “QCA’s legacy will be in the improved product safety and testing available throughout the entire promotional product industry. QCA brought promotional products companies together to elevate the best practices of our industry, allowing companies to grow and keep up with consumer demand.”

Spector’s Pearson agrees. “Compliance is a community; we were not alone and we supported each other,” he says. “Being a member of QCA and interacting with other members provides insights, addresses new challenges and gives a heads up to issues you may not have seen yet. Having access to this knowledge was immeasurable.”

Logomark’s Gnesin comments, “QCA changed this industry and helped bring change to the leaders in product safety and compliance. It was a great bonding experience with companies that cared about saving the promotional products industry.”

Angela Schaefer, director of compliance at SanMar, sums it up: “QCA has elevated the concepts of social compliance, environmental stewardship, and product safety in our industry.”


What’s Next

Without QCA leading the charge for brand safety and responsible sourcing, where do promotional products firms turn?

PPAI is a logical information source, as are other accreditation organizations such as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP).

PCNA’s Nicholson recommends also leaning on testing labs. “The industry will need to continue to rely on independent third parties to audit not only the vendor base but the supplier’s facilities to ensure compliance with standard,” he says. “Suppliers must take more initiative to address ongoing compliance requirements and distributors must be more vigilant in asking the right questions of their suppliers.”

Gemline’s Blahnik brings up an interesting point about how niche markets have their own standards that will need to be addressed if not covered in other certifications. “Promotional products are used by so many industries, and each of those industries can potentially have their own set of requirements when it comes to responsible sourcing,” he explains. “Promotional products companies should look into the industries where they sell and participate in product safety and compliance discussions in those key markets.”

Overall, however, Spector’s Pearson says QCA’s departure will leave a void. “QCA’s Accreditation Program brought compliance and safety to the forefront,” he says. “It was all encompassing in its guidance—not only addressing sourcing, product development, product compliance review and product safety but also championing natural resources, the environment and reusable/recycled products, workers’ rights and codes of conduct. Without QCA, there will be a void. Those who were members will be able to continue along the path that QCA laid out. However, those companies who didn’t participate won’t have the foundation that QCA provided. It will be a struggle.”


Insights From QCA’s Executive Director

One constant throughout QCA’s history is D.E. Fenton, QCA’s executive director. She’s lived and breathed compliance while being personally invested in the success of every QCA member.

With all of the testing protocols, document reviews, conference calls and more, what are her biggest takeaways during her tenure at QCA?

“Effective compliance programs require a solid foundation and leadership that values what these processes contribute to the overall business,” she says. “You can’t manage what you don’t track.”

It’s also interesting to note that she would frequently hear complaints about how vague regulations and statutes are, that they aren’t prescriptive enough. “But this is actually a good thing! No two companies are exactly alike, so what works for one company doesn’t always work for another,” she explains. “This point was made time and time again as we worked with companies building processes that would sustain them in their product safety and responsible sourcing efforts.”

So what kept her coming to work for the past 12 years? “QCA’s members and applicants,” she says. “That ‘ah-hah’ moment when a member realized they weren’t just documenting processes but had an opportunity to make their company BETTER in ways that worked for their company. The ownership for them that came out of that was truly gratifying.”

With a dozen years under her belt, there have been ups and downs, good times and bad. But what are Fenton’s proudest moments?

“I’ve watched our members assume positions of leadership in the promotional products industry and in national organizations around topics on compliance,” she says. “Their accomplishments have provided me some of my proudest moments.”

Looking back over the years, what does Fenton see as QCA’s legacy? “QCA changed the industry,” she explains. “The fact that QCA, the organization, has ceased operations doesn’t mean member companies are going to disassemble processes that made them more knowledgeable about their businesses and product. In fact, I expect them to continue to be the innovators in the promotional products industry.”


Final Thoughts

I couldn’t end this piece without sharing about my experience with QCA. Typically, writers don’t insert themselves into the story, but I’m making an exception here.

While I haven’t been involved with QCA for the full 12 years, I have spent roughly eight years working with the organization as a writer for hire, consultant and, most recently, the editorial and marketing director.

During this time, I’ve written nearly 70 press releases, 50 blog posts, dozens of earned media articles and hundreds of social media posts. I wrote that first press release in 2009 announcing that QCA filed articles of incorporation for not-for-profit status, and it’s fitting that I’m writing the final press release and blog post that concludes the organization’s operations.

Through all of this content, I hope my words have inspired those who read to take a more active role in product safety and responsible sourcing, and I also hope that my sharing QCA’s story in some way contributed to the organization’s success.

I’m immensely proud of the work QCA has done, the impact it has had on the promotional products industry and the legacy it leaves. I’m extremely passionate about product safety, compliance, social responsibility and environmental issues, and I have the folks at QCA to thank for educating me on these issues and giving me the opportunity to bring these topics to life via the written word.

Thank you to Dee Fenton, QCA’s executive director, and to the previous executive directors of operations—Brent Stone, Jeff Jacobs and Tim Brown, MAS— it’s been a pleasure working with all of you and it has been my honor to be a part of the QCA team.

The sun may have set on QCA as an organization, but the light of its legacy will always shine bright within its members as they continue to implement what they have learned from QCA and build upon this foundation to meet the needs of the end buyers. Ultimately, that’s what we set out to do more than a decade ago. Job well done.