Heating Up

by Tina Manzer

Prepare your store shelves now for Earth Day 2020, Wednesday, April 22. It’s the 50th anniversary of the world’s first major environmental movement and today’s young activists are planning “the biggest mass uprising this world has ever seen.”

Fridays for Future USA, the U.S. contingent of the movement Greta Thunberg founded, has announced they’ll strike for three full days.

Could it be possible that the gone-missing tween and teen markets will report back to specialty toy stores? It’s a possibility, especially if you carry products that highlight climate protection and sustainability, or what Spielwarenmesse calls Toys for the Future. “As a trend, it promotes environmentally friendly behavior and raises awareness through play, in addition to encompassing toys made from ecological materials, and items that have been upcycled or recycled.”

Gen Z has joined forces with Millennials, long considered the “eco-warrior” generation, “to shape an environmental movement that stretches beyond hashtags and into real action,” says Youth Pulse Inc., a New York City-based market research firm specializing in the behavior of Gen Z and Millennials. An example would be the #StopSucking movement, which resulted in big companies like Starbucks, Disney, SeaWorld, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and others ditching plastic straws. It may have been just a drop in the bucket, environment-wise, but it was a good start for the younger generation. If they can effect that change, just think of how they can change the use of plastic in other industries, including toys.

Millennials’ dedication to environmental issues has influenced brands for years, and today, Millennial parents are demanding eco-friendly toy-and-game options for their children – playthings that reflect their own “save the planet” values. “Parents want to know that the products they buy will not harm the environment,” says Ken Seiter, executive vice president of marketing communications at The Toy Association. “Offering a toy that is biodegradable or an initiative that encourages toy sharing will appeal to today’s environmentally-conscious consumers.”

And consumers are using their wallets to support causes they believe in, according to tracking firm Nielsen. Environmentally conscious shoppers have grown sustainable product sales by nearly 20 percent since 2014. By 2021, consumers are expected to spend $150 billion on sustainable goods. 

Here’s what research from YouthPulse reveals about consumers age 13 to 36. Half of them say they’re more likely to buy a product described as “sustainable.” A study by Total Retail indicates that 45 percent of Millennials could be swayed to purchase products from eco-conscious companies, despite the fact that they have less overall brand loyalty than other generations. As an example, Lush, the U.K-based cosmetics retailer, sold 12,000 Shampoo Bars in 48 hours after a Facebook video highlighted their positive environmental impact.

However, eco-products must not be perceived as expensive. Sixty-one percent say they’d like to buy more eco-friendly products, but they care more about price. “Millennials are a thrifty bunch, and they’re not always able to afford to consistently support the causes they believe in,” points out Youth Pulse.

At the same time, more than one-third of consumers ages 13 to 36 say they’ll pay 10-percent more for eco-friendly products. But as the price goes higher, the percentage of young consumers willing to pay it goes lower: 19 percent would be willing to pay 25-percent more, and only 7 percent would be willing to pay a full 50-percent more.

A third of young consumers say ads that show what a brand is doing to help the environment makes them feel more positively about the brand. “Nearly 80 percent say that buying products from brands that have social-good components makes them feel better about spending money – and 30-percent want that social cause to be global warming. Twenty-six percent think it should be environmental issues in general.”

The toy industry steps up

A 2019 report from The Toy Association and ProdigyWorks recognized that opportunities exist for toy manufacturers and retailers to bring in new customers – and deepen connections with existing customers – through reusable and eco-friendly strategies. Among their suggestions were these.

•Host or sponsor free neighborhood toy exchanges, which would operate as a library and align with today’s “sharing economy.”

•To serve low-income neighborhoods, companies could create local toy banks (similar to community food banks). Toymakers or retailers could tie this to sales, with each toy purchase funding a gift to a toy bank for underprivileged children. Consumers could also help stock the toy banks by donating toys and games.

•Toy companies need to recognize and respond to a fast-rising movement against plastics that is shaping consumer behavior. If toys were made with materials that biodegrade, a family could compost it themselves or send it out for municipal composting – upping the product’s appeal to parents.

The biggest toy companies have already stepped up, with LEGO at the forefront. In 2017, the 85-year-old Danish company reached its goal of using 100-percent renewable energy, three years before it predicted it would. Then, last summer, after a seven-year effort, LEGO revealed play pieces it had made from plant-based plastic sourced from sugar cane. The trees and other botanical pieces – not bricks, not yet –appeared in box sets with mini figures later in the year. According to Tim Brooks, LEGO’s vice president of environmental responsibility, it’s a first step in the mission to use more sustainable materials in its core products and packaging by 2030.

In October, a brick recycling program called LEGO Replay was launched in the U.S. The pilot program is designed to make the process easy for consumers. “We saw that people really wanted to donate their bricks, but one of the things they said was, if we could give you our bricks, from the environmental perspective, we don’t want you to grind them up and make outdoor furniture or something else from them,” Brooks told Forbes.

Instead, LEGO, through a partnership with Give Back Box, recycles the bricks and sends them to Teach for America classrooms around the country, and to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. “Collect any loose LEGO bricks, sets, or elements, place them into a cardboard box, and visit lego.com/replay to print out a free UPS shipping label,” says the instructions on lego.com. “The package will be sent to the Give Back Box facility, where each brick will be sorted, inspected by hand, and given a rigorous cleaning.”

To make sure it had the right partners and controls in place LEGO worked on the pilot for three years before launching it. Partner Give Back Box is a charity that handles similar programs. They repackage the bricks and send them on their way.

“People don’t throw away their Lego bricks,” added Brooks. “The vast majority hand them down to their children or grandchildren. But others have asked us for a safe way to dispose or donate their bricks, so with Replay, they have an easy option that’s both sustainable and socially impactful.”

Hasbro and Mattel have their own environmental sustainability plans. Hasbro will begin to phase out plastics in their packaging this year, reports occupational safety and health magazine EHS Today. The company plans to remove the shrink-wrap encasing Monopoly and Operation game boxes, plus the polybags that hold the game pieces inside. It will also do away with the blister packs that imprison Avengers and Transformers action figures, along with the thin plastic window sheets on Super Soaker boxes.

The move is part of a broad strategy that Hasbro has been executing for the last 10-plus years, said Hasbro Senior Vice President Kathrin Belliveau in EHS Today. “It can be summed up as ‘Leave the world a better place for children and their families’ and ‘Do the right thing.’”

Mattel announced last December that its goal was to achieve 100-percent recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastics materials in both its products and packaging by 2030. The first products aligned with this goal – the iconic Fisher-Price Rock-a-Stack, made from sugarcane-based plastics and packaged in 100-percent recycled or sustainably sourced material – will debut this year.

The new goal expands Mattel’s Environmental Sustainable Sourcing Principles; initiatives it announced in 2011. The company now sources 93 percent of the paper and wood fiber used in its packaging and products from recycled or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) content. It has also adopted the How2Recycle label, a standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public.

The strain on our planet and environment, unfortunately, coupled with consumers’ desire to choose eco-friendly products, creates opportunities for specialty toy retailers who have long been advocates of “green” toys and business practices. Show shoppers “what your made of” by making sure sustainable toys (defined here by ethical.net) are included on your shelves.

• made from renewable, natural materials;

• do not release carbon or other greenhouse gases during manufacture;

• do not pollute the environment in other  ways at any stage of their life cycle;

• are made without consuming water or  other resources at unsustainable rates;

• are manufactured as close to home as possible;

• do not pose a health risk to those who make or use them and

• don’t cause a waste problem at the end of their useful life. 

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