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Summer 2012
Toying With Green

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Toys might be child’s play but for manufacturers and consumers, they are anything but. Wholesalers are slowly investing in making green toys that last.

It’s a common customer inquiry at aMuse Toys in Baltimore: “Can you help me find a ‘green’ toy to give as a gift to a 1-year-old?”

For aMuse owner Claudia Towles, such a request allows for an interesting and informative dialogue not only about what her shop offers, but what exactly constitutes an eco-friendly product. “I start with an explanation of how the products are made—for example, our wooden toys that are made without paint but instead with organic vegetable dyes, or plastic toys made from recycled milk jugs,” Towles says. “It’s showing people the variety.”

It’s also sharing information beyond manufacturing practices, she adds: “It’s the play value the toy offers, its great design, the choicest materials that are used. These are key components.”

From blocks and board games to flash cards and figurines – and all-things-kid-oriented in between – green toys continue to top shoppers’ lists as must-have items when it comes to buying for the youngest people in their lives, say industry insiders. While exact sales of green toys in the U.S. are hard to come by, a growing number of companies are creating these products as consumers continue to seek out ways to live greener lifestyles, says Adrienne Appell, a trend specialist and spokesperson for the Toy Industry Association, a New York City-based not-for-profit trade association for producers and importers of toys and youth entertainment products sold in North America.

“There’s more of a focus on being green in every aspect of our lives,” Appell says. “What is great about green toys and green products is they were at a lot higher price point, but I think that price point has come down. They’re at a competitive cost.”

Also, the ways in which companies are creating green products varies, she says. “Some companies may, for every product they sell, plant a tree. Or they use sustainable materials,” she says.

Consider HABA, a longtime Germany-based manufacturer known for its wooden toys. When the family-owned business decided to construct new digs for its headquarters, a contest was set up to attract the builders with the most eco-friendly ideas, says Lea Culliton, president of HABA USA. The end result: a building with geothermal heat and cooling that incorporated scrap wood and uses rainwater as a secondary water source (for some plumbing in restrooms).

Molly Ging, owner of The Little Seedling in Ann Arbor, MI, says she makes sure to research a company before stocking her shelves with its products. “I try to bring in things that are unique from companies that care about the product, care about the environment—companies that do a really good job and have low recall rates,” Ging says. “I always say you can only get so eco-friendly on a stroller. You pick and choose your battles. You can only work to reduce your children’s exposure. You can’t eliminate it, only limit it.”

Educational fun

Family interaction is behind New York City-based manufacturer eeBoo, which creates several eco-friendly items. “The philosophy behind our products is that we want to put out a product that is high quality and promotes family play,” says Rosie Meigs, sales associate for eeBoo. “We definitely make sure the materials are high quality and our artwork, from children’s book illustrators, is very beautiful.”

A couple of the company’s eco-friendly lines include “Respect the Earth” flash cards, retailing for $12, that offer tips for kids to do their part in caring for the planet, and the board game “Gathering a Garden” that retails for $18. “It plants this idea in them that food comes from a garden and that’s a fun thing,” Meigs says of the board game for ages five and older that’s made from recycled materials. “Kids become very familiar with what they can find in a garden.”

Your youngest customers will like testing out Anamalz, a line of 35 pose-able animal figurines designed in Australia, says Josh Tyler, known as the “chief zookeeper” for Anamalz North America in Nashville, TN.

“There’s a real tactile feel to them,” Tyler says. “You can actually pose them and interact with them.”

The line of hand-painted animals—they range in size from 3 to 11 inches tall, also are sold separately, for about $9 a piece. Each piece is crafted using water-based paints and fabrics that are azo- and formaldehyde-free. (Azo dyes that have been found to be potential carcinogens.)

Green Toys, Inc. is another manufacturer known for its high “playability” toys. The Mill Valley, CA-based company’s toys are constructed from recycled plastic and other environmentally friendly materials, 
says co-founder Robert von Goeben.

Green Toys’ Pastel Tool Set, which comes in two colors and retails for $28, includes screwdrivers, hammer, saw, screws and bolts—all from recycled milk cartons. Another favorite: a 20-piece salad set, retailing for $20, that features stackable, realistic-looking items made in the United States from food-safe, recycled plastic milk containers.

Teaching toys

With a growing demand for green children’s items, retailers like Towles believe in the importance of helping educate customers—even those customers who generally already arrive at stores with a basic understanding of eco-friendly products.

“For us, it’s a really big deal. That customer hand-holding that we are allowed to have because we have a physical interaction by talking—that’s the kicker that’s what makes a difference,” she says, adding that her eight to 13 staff members depending upon the season all go through “a rigorous 60-hour training on the floor” to ensure they’re up to speed on products.

Manufacturers appreciate retailers like Towles and Ging, who understand the importance of toys that are truly eco-friendly, and are willing to share that with customers. After all, they say, some companies may claim to be friendly toward the environment but aren’t really; simply slapping on an ‘organic’ or ‘eco-friendly’ label isn’t sufficient.

“In this industry, there is a rash of people wanting to say they are eco-friendly,” says Ryan Hamilton, president of Geared for Imagination, an Akron, OH-based toy manufacturer. Geared for Imagination, which recently launched an eco-friendly line of products called Topozoo, uses packaging to help reassure retailers and shoppers that the products inside are the real deal.

“We try to spell that out clearly in the packaging—what is eco-friendly,” Hamilton says. “We explain the wood, the water-based stain used, to really communicate that to the educated customers.” Topozoo products feature “layered” wooden animal figurines retailing for about $12 a piece, or a set of three animals for $30. For $16.99, recycled plastic markers come with the sturdy cardboard animal versions and kids can color their new pet.

“We really developed it out of response from our customers,” says Hamilton, whose Geared for Imagination is known for its plush animal products. “We had a lot of retailers coming into our booth (at trade and gift shows) asking if we had anything eco-friendly and anything USA made. We got tired of saying no so we sat down and talked about what ideas we could make domestically and in a green way.”

Topozoo animals—think dinosaurs, mythical creatures, safari animals—are made from recycled wood and a color stain that is made from a byproduct of cheese-making, Hamilton says. Vermont Natural Coatings creates the color stain for the line of 3-D wooden animal puzzles, he says.

The company also has developed a line of organic cotton plush items. The line’s five pieces are geared for infants and include a rattle and blanket, among other items, and retail between $15 to $30.

Designating an area of your store for green products is a smart move, Hamilton adds. “Gift shops are bigger customers for us than toy stores, and a lot of them will have a kids’ corner or kids area where they will pair the green kids products with other eco-friendly, general lifestyle products. This way you can tell the whole story, a green lifestyle story.”

Following the widespread toy recalls a few years ago, ensuring customers were well informed became critically important, says Barbara Rainville, marketing manager for Middlebury, Vt. manufacturer Maple Land Mark. The company’s most popular item: wooden magnetic alphabet letters that can be linked together to form a child’s name.

“We have always tested our finishes, we’ve always been mindful,” Rainville says. “Our retailers were comfortable with us, but the end-consumer didn’t know, wasn’t as comfortable,” she says. The company’s response? A paint-free “schoolhouse natural line” of toys, designed for children ages three and under, that includes teethers.

USA-made the best?

Rainville, of Maple Landmark, has noticed more consumers pushing for products made in the United States. “Last year and this year, we have noticed a shift from not just eco-friendly, but American made,” she says. “Now they’re looking at American-made because of the economy. It’s a subtle change, but it’s a definite change.”

However, some in the industry say quality, classic and long-lasting toys—whether made overseas or in the United States—will stand out and attract shoppers who are looking for green toys. Says Ging, of The Little Seedling toy store: “Blocks are a good example. Kids use them for stacking when they’re younger, and then as tracks for their cars when they get older. My boys, they are 6 and 8 now, and they’re still using the blocks. I paid more for them, but I’ve certainly gotten my money out of it. If you have a toy that your child is going to play with for years, that’s going to be more eco-friendly than a toy your child will only use for a short period of time.”

Towles, of aMuse Toys, agrees. “We as consumers in general want made in the USA, but, at least for me, it’s just part of the equation. It’s not the only thing,” Towles says.

Culliton, of HABA USA, believes well-made toys will remain popular even in our technology-driven world. “I think there’s a whole unplugged part of society that wants their children to grow up not with technology feeding them everything,” she says. “Even the mom who turns around and hands her toddler her iPhone in the car may get home and say no TV.”

Further evidence: products like HABA’s 30 different wooden rattles, blocks and pull toys are keepsakes, items that are passed down through the generations. Culliton says. “What people have told me is these are the toys they never sell at the garage sale. These are the ones you put in your heirloom box and pull out when your kids are older,” she says. “People will see one of our products and say to me, ‘Oh my God, my mom had something like that! That’s so classic.’ They have they classic, heirloom quality to them.”

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Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman's Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at HeatherDurocher.com

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