In the 1960s film, Pollyanna, there’s a brief scene where a child, Jimmy Bean, runs down an old country road with a hoop and stick, playing a game called hoop rolling. He runs right past two girls pushing their respective dolls in strollers. While the scene is inconsequential to the film as a whole, it paints a relatively accurate scene of the toy industry in the early 1900s, when the film is set. Entertainment by way of simplicity was what characterized the toy industry until the late 1900s, with games like hopscotch, cat’s cradle, dolls, and electric trains reigning supreme in the mid-20th Century. But with the rise of in-home televisions increasing by more than 50% in the late 1900s, in conjunction with advertising and a booming toy market, play items are now made en masse, with children wanting more of “what’s popular,” under a rapidly-changing umbrella.
This toy industry boom happened alongside the advent of plastic, which meant that products could be made faster and cheaper. Toys that were once crafted from wood, rope, fabric, or various metals were now produced using plastic for mass-market use—and, consequently, each item now lived longer in a landfill or in our oceans than it ever would in the heart of a child. A $90 billion industry, toys “[use] 40 tons of plastic for every $1 million in revenues and is the most plastic-intensive industry in the world.” With about 11 million tons of plastic dumped in the world’s oceans every year, just diverting half of the plastic used in toys could make a significant difference. By now, we know that plastic pollution is more detrimental to our environment than it is an eye sore. The chemicals present in plastics ensure that they don’t break down easily, making them durable and versatile, two characteristics that have solidified their essential use in every sector, from the medical industry to hospitality to toys.
These chemicals, such as phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA), poison marine and wildlife, including the systems they depend upon, which has not only led to endangered species but has also altered ecosystems globally. As each being is connected to the Earth and all of its creatures and systems, these disruptions impact the food chain and water supply, amongst various other networks. What’s more, as plastic decomposes on land, the chemical make-up shifts, changing the composition of the soil, which impacts the agricultural system while contaminating the food supply; evidence of which can be found in the recent study that found microplastics in humans. Where children are concerned, many of the chemicals found in plastic toys—like the aforementioned phthalates and BPA—can lead to hormonal shifts and birth defects, as well as liver and kidney cancer.
What’s more, the steady hold consumerism and capitalism has on parents is only inherited by their children, who are being conditioned to be “ideal” capitalists. Every few weeks and months, a new toy, movie franchise, or interest is being marketed, with the renewed promise of better entertainment and more fun, all rooted in a certain, “gotta have it” advertising hook. These same children, who beg their parents for the latest toy industry technology or product, grow up to be adults in a consumerist world, who have been subliminally taught to buy ad nauseum, without waste in mind.
Toys that were once crafted from wood, rope, and fabric are today made from plastic—and each item now lives longer in a landfill than it ever would in the heart of a child.
Even considering the degree that the world is shifting toward a sustainable future, it can be a cumbersome venture to determine what will be both environmentally conscious and entertaining to a child who is growing up in a world that demands and wants more and more. Yet the safety of both the planet and its children depends upon a shift in how we approach buying and making toys. While the desire for such shifts are present amongst parents and consumers, the dangers of greenwashing can be pronounced, especially for parents who don’t have the time or resources to do the extra research.
Take for instance some of the biggest names in toys. LEGO, Mattel, and Hasbro are all making changes in both how they make and package products. LEGO now makes certain products out of sugarcane polyethylene, which might sound less detrimental to the environment than its previous practices, but the new generation of LEGO can still be toxic during the break-down period. Regardless of it being derived from sugarcane, it’s not biodegradable. “Other companies are using bamboo in their products and advertising that it’s environmentally-friendly,” says Dr. Amanda Gummer, Research Psychologist and Founder of the Good Play Guide. “That’s true about bamboo, but in order for it to pass the toy industry’s safety standards it has to be coated in plastic.” This final coating removes the possibility of recycling the toy, and continues promoting the production of plastic. While sturdy, well-made bamboo toys can be passed down for a few generations, the lack of buy-back or repair programs in the United States makes the landfill or our oceans more likely destinations.
“When I first got into the consulting business, I started interviewing toy companies. I wanted to know why it seemed like bigger companies weren’t doing much,” says Sonia Sanchez, an impact and sustainability consultant based in the U.K. “But it’s not that simple. Companies want to switch to more sustainable materials, and the issue isn’t even that it’s expensive. It’s about finding the supply.”
But there is still cause for hope. A new crop of toy companies are sprouting up with the intention of building their business models with sustainability in mind. Green Toys is one such company. The California-based business makes each toy from 100% recycled plastic, mostly from used milk jugs or yogurt containers. Their practices are helping to divert materials that might get lost in a mismanaged waste and recycling system, while making fun, colorful, interactive toys for little ones. Their production and consumption processes are also far less extensive than that of Mattel, Hasbro, or LEGO. In order for the biggest names in toys to find enough resources to continue providing their consumer base with toys and their stockholders with profit, they’d need a mass amount of materials.
Even so, the earnestness with which companies are seeking out these materials seems to be making a change. “Just asking for more sustainable supplies is making shifts,” says Sanchez. Suppliers are being met with industry-wide requests for more eco-friendly manufacturing materials from the toy industry’s largest producers. As the economy goes, it’s the hope that this demand will eventually be met with supply.
It’s not just the materials that children play with that matter. The toy industry, with its unparalleled access and influence over young hearts and minds, is in a unique position to influence the psychology of future generations. “Play is a really powerful tool to open up conversations around many issues. Parents are looking for products that are both sustainably made and help kids learn about environmental issues,” says Dr. Gummer. “The industry has the ability to game-ify sustainability through buy-back, repair, or recycling programs and by introducing it at a young age through content and playful activities.” The consumers of today are raising the consumers of tomorrow, and at the forefront of these parents’ desires are less consumption, longer usage, and more sustainable options. For a company to not act is to risk the future of their standing.
Between the supply chain, costs, and manufacturing obstacles, the idea that one company, big or small, established or developing, can tackle the sustainability issue alone is a farce. Instead, many toy companies are approaching the challenge in the same way activists, states, and countries ought to and often do in order to combat the climate crisis. They’re working together to find the solution. “They’re really open to sharing and open source what they’re doing to allow other companies to learn from them,” says Andrea Green from Products of Change, a global organization that assists companies in their sustainability efforts. “They’re asking, How can we be more responsible for what the consumer base wants and for what the environment needs? It’s all about Planet, People, Profit.” Without the former two, the latter ceases to exist, and while it’s perhaps a socialistic dream to wish profit wasn’t even a factor, industries seem to be moving in the right direction within the parameters of their existence.
Photographer Tami Aftab Stylist Annabel Lucey Set Designer Max Randall Makeup Artist Emily Wood Models Naoko Sato; Zarina Shukri; Joe Carlyle