Bandwagon: How the toy world is heading in a more sustainable direction

Toy expert Christopher Byrne tracks the movements of the toy industry, which is becoming sensitive to the ecological impact of consumer products and manufacturing.
April 21, 2023

When California-based Green Toys’ first product range hit retail shelves in 2010, the company’s mission to use 100% recycled materials made it an outlier in the sector. It was a niche strategy at a time when consumers, manufacturers and mass culture at large were just beginning to become sensitive to the ecological impact of consumer products and manufacturing.

Sixteen years later, the world has changed, and sustainably manufactured products matter to the majority of today’s consumers. Recent research clearly shows this: A 2022 survey by US-based Do Something found that 75% of Gen-Z consumers (people born since 1997, representing about 26% of the global population) desire sustainable products and value sustainability over brand.

Moreover, Gen-Z consumers are savvy, and they know authenticity. If companies are claiming to be green or sustainable, they’d better be for real…or they risk being called out. As always, the toy industry is paying attention.

It’s important to define what sustainable means in the context of consumer products. It really boils down to three concepts. First, sustainable toys don’t deplete natural resources. Second, they are made in an ecologically responsible way. The third component—social responsibility—may not be as obvious. It’s a slightly different interpretation of the word “sustainable,” but in this context, it means maintaining levels of respect, care and well-being at all levels of a company.

With consumers increasingly looking for proof that the companies they deal with are sustainable, many are now publicly posting information about their sustainability programs. In recent years, Mattel, Hasbro, Plan Toys and the Toy Association have continued to revise and expand their sustainability mandates. These are readily available and worth a read, both to see the level of commitment these industry leaders are making, and to gain insights on where they see the industry going.

Notably, the shift to place a higher value on sustainability is taking place on the B2B side as well. This year, in response to requests from international buyers, the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair began a program that encourages manufacturers to put a leaf sign on their stands to call attention to green toys.

Historically, cost has been a deterrent to adopting sustainable practices, but even that is changing. New technologies are making sustainable materials more affordable and accessible. One example is bioplastics made from renewable resources. According to Dublin-based Research and Markets, the use of bioplastics is set to soar—even though the material is more expensive—because it’s cost-efficient to use, requiring 65% less energy to manufacture than conventional plastic. And the market research firm predicts that continued R&D will result in further cost reductions over time. Meanwhile, my ongoing conversations with marketers and Gen-Z consumers indicate they’re willing to spend a bit more on products that reflect their values.

Mattel’s 2021 launch of the “Barbie Loves the Ocean” line (pictured)—with toys made from 90% recycled plastic—was a smart play that will likely resonate with kids who may be learning about plastic pollution in school. These positive moves are not a silver bullet, but they are steps in the right direction. And there are more steps to come, since the toy industry always reflects the culture at large.

Will toys heal the planet? Probably not. However, the awareness and practice of eco-consciousness that green and sustainable toys can instill in a generation of kids will shape their values and futures. And that’s what good play does.

This story originally appeared in Kidscreen‘s May/June 2023 magazine.

Christopher Byrne (a.k.a. The Toy Guy) is a toy expert, consultant, author and co-host of The Playground Podcast.

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