The High Cost of Walmart's Cheap Miley Cyrus Jewelry

Last Updated May 25, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

Behind Walmart's (WMT) wide-eyed defense of its jewelry safety standards, there is no doubt a small legion of PR types and number crunchers busily hand-wringing as they scurry to strategize their way through a product recall of Miley Cyrus jewelry thought to contain toxic levels of cadmium. Managing a misstep of such epic proportions (think of the pop queen's legions of tween fans) takes a sure hand, yet Walmart's already careening all over the road -- in a big way.

First, the lame excuse. Speaking on behalf of Walmart's Safety and Compliance department, Walmart spokeswoman Jane Coleman declares that the exclusive Miley Cyrus & Max Azria clothing and accessories collection was not intended for children. "It is sold in our ladies apparel section and it was designed for and marketed to older audiences. However, it is possible that a few younger consumers may seek it out in stores."

Really? A few? If you think the singing sensation who made her debut as a 12-year-old star of Disney's ludicrously popular Hannah Montana (and is now on track to be a billionaire by the time she's twenty) might only draw a "few" kids to the adult section, I have some nice beachfront property to sell you -- in Arizona.

Second, the Bentonville behemoth's stunning response as it yanks -- er, "voluntarily withdraws" -- all the pop-star's branded baubles and bangles from its stores after a newly released nationwide test done for the Associated Press. Walmart claims that it adopted the British Standard Safety of Toys â€" Part 3, the European standard for cadmium for toys, and applied it to children's jewelry. That's because the U.S. doesn't have a standard. Congratulations for being proactive.

But not so fast. Walmart says:

Children's jewelry products manufactured after April 9, 2010 must meet this Walmart standard to be sold in our stores. We also reviewed children's jewelry manufactured before April 9 and found that most conformed to our new Walmart standard.

The latest AP report, however, makes clear that Walmart has known since February that the Miley Cyrus jewelry, manufactured in China, did contain unsafe levels of cadmium. Given the AP's findings that most of the samples had high levels and that girls ages 6 to 11 (right in the range of Miley's fan base) appear to be more at risk from cadmium poisoning because they absorb more of the metal than other children or adults, it appears as though the only thing Walmart is trying to protect is its own bottom line.

The AP further noted that Walmart said as recently as April that it would be "too difficult to test products already on its shelves."

Which is a shame, because product safety is a key motivator that keeps cash registers ringing. Were Walmart's execs somehow unaware of Toyota's recent safety debacle? Though Walmart will likely remain free of lawsuits thanks to the fact that the items tested for AP this time were labeled "not intended for children under 14 years," remember it is the parents who are doing the buying (likely cajoled by a whining and scene-making eight- year-old who just has to have that music note necklace so she can be just like Miley). Make them think you're selling toxic goods and you lose them as paying customers. Plain and simple.

Finally, while Walmart says it stands together with Miley Cyrus and Max Azria "in the belief that the safety of our customers is absolutely a top priority," the retailer shouldn't count on the teen celebrity's squeaky clean image to polish up its own. At 17, Miley's hit a rebellious phase, singing of her desire to break free of childhood and declaring she's not going to pursue college. But even if she takes a stand against bad manufacturing practices a la Olsen twins and their petition against Walmart's sweatshop labor, guess who's going to come out smelling like a rose? Hint: not the retailer.

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