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How green are you? – Toycos score eco-points with consumers and retailers

With so much high-profile to-do being made about eco-friendly business practices these days, you may be starting to feel a little green around the gills on the issue. But it would be wise to temper this malaise by remembering that many consumers have the toy industry's manufacturing mechanics under a microscope right now, keeping a suspicious eye on safety issues and sizing up environmental and sustainability processes to boot. Several toy companies are using the proverbial heat in the kitchen as a trigger to push through an overhaul of their environmental approach, at the same time scoring major points with consumers for being green ambassadors.
September 1, 2007

With so much high-profile to-do being made about eco-friendly business practices these days, you may be starting to feel a little green around the gills on the issue. But it would be wise to temper this malaise by remembering that many consumers have the toy industry’s manufacturing mechanics under a microscope right now, keeping a suspicious eye on safety issues and sizing up environmental and sustainability processes to boot. Several toy companies are using the proverbial heat in the kitchen as a trigger to push through an overhaul of their environmental approach, at the same time scoring major points with consumers for being green ambassadors.

Mattel, for example, has been penning an official Global Sustainability Strategic Plan for the last year. Some of the measures outlined in the report include installing energy-saving devices in sewing and injection-molding machines, reducing hydraulic oil used to fuel die-casting equipment in Asian manufacturing factories, reducing packaging and using more recyclable materials. Mattel is also committed to continuing to reduce the amount of paper used in its American Girl catalogues. In 2005, Mattel saved 1,200 tons of paper by cutting the number of pages in the book, reducing mailings and trimming its list of recipients to a more targeted audience.

Now the toyco is applying the same green sensibility to its products. Barbie B Cause is a line of girls accessories made entirely from reused and repurposed fabric trimmings from the Barbie manufacturing process. The nature of the materials means these couture-ish handbags, belts and scarves are all one-of-a-kind – a thrill for young fashionistas and a clever way to rack up some credibility with parents and enviro-conscious kids.

Jakks Pacific is also on the bandwagon, having recently launched a line of eco-friendly pet toys as part of its American Kennel Club Green Planet Collection. The plush is made of 100% recycled polyester stuffing and 80% recycled packaging, and these attributes are communicated to shoppers via an on-pack recycling symbol. VP of corporate communications Genna Rosenberg says the pet toys are just the start, and the company plans to try out a wide variety of green initiatives in the next year.

While the toy industry’s big players make efforts to retrofit their operations with pro-environmental standards and products, a small start-up doing business in the specialty market has staked its entire strategy and corporate identity on being green. Making the most of the environmental movement, San Francisco, California’s Green Toys launched this year and focuses squarely on catering to the eco-conscious consumer. Its toys are made entirely out of a relatively new material called bioplastic, which is derived from renewable resources such as corn, as opposed to regular plastic, whose primary raw ingredient is petroleum. Green Toys then uses biodegradable colorants to dye the stuff before using it to create products.

So far, the company manufactures four play sets – a tea set, a cookware set, a sand-play set and an indoor gardening kit, all of which will be available at specialty this fall. And Green Toys’ unbleached, no-frills packaging with an eco-friendly message on each panel is designed to cue customers to the toys’ environmental position. ‘We think it’s good to introduce the line at the specialty level because that’s where we think our consumer is right now,’ says Green Toys co-founder Laurie Hyman, but she adds that down the road, she’d love to see Green Toys at big box outlets as well as mom-and-pop stores.

If wooing a more environmentally enlightened consumer isn’t motivation enough, toycos may soon be forcibly pushed to adopt greener packaging practices. Mass retailers are eager to compete for consumers who are primed to choose eco-friendly products, and greening their supply chain is an obvious start. This means that how your sustainable process model stacks up could soon make all the difference when it comes to securing shelf space. Wal-Mart has already kick-started an initiative to reduce its in-store product packaging by 5% come 2013, and beginning next year, the chain’s buyers will consult an in-house Packaging Scorecard when determining which products to stock.

The retail giant has already reduced the packaging on 300 of its own Kids Connection toy SKUs, a move that it happily boasts saved 3,425 tons of corrugated materials, 1,358 barrels of oil, 5,190 trees, 727 shipping containers and US$ 3.5 million in transportation costs in 2006.

As of this spring, more than 2,200 of Wal-Mart’s private-label vendors had logged onto its Packaging Scorecard website, and 117 products had been entered into the system that evaluates the sustainability of an item’s packaging based on greenhouse gas emissions related to production, material value, product-to-packaging ratio and cube utilization. Though signing up is strictly voluntary for now, companies that do participate can see how they rank compared to a peer group of suppliers, and Wal-Mart hopes this will inspire a competition to be recognized as the chain’s most environmentally responsible partner.

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