Toys and sustainability in the U.S.

Of course, it was (and still is) more costly to procure and utilize sustainable materials in the toy production process, and that cost must in some part be passed along to the consumer. I found that the answer was, “to some degree, yes.” Consumers who were shopping at specialty toy retailers were the key consumers looking for green toys, as they were already interested in higher quality products with more perceived value. Since environmentally friendly toys were frequently made from rubberwood or other sustainable natural materials, the products were able to last longer than their plastic counterparts. 

These days, sustainability in toys in the U.S. is no longer confined to smaller specialty manufacturers fulfilling orders for upscale independent toy retailers. The cost of producing sustainable products has decreased, and consumer awareness has gone up dramatically. Global warming and the environment have become key concerns for U.S. consumers.

According to GreenPrint Corporation’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index survey, nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans are willing to pay more for sustainable products and 78% of people are more likely to purchase a product that is clearly labeled as environmentally friendly. However, a majority of people have doubts when companies say they are environmentally friendly, with 45% of Americans saying they need a third-party validating source.

The Index also found that 75% of Millennials are willing to pay more for an environmentally sustainable product, compared to 63% of Gen Z, 64% of Gen X, and 57% of Boomers.

Being environmentally friendly goes beyond just the toy itself. Packaging is a key culprit of environmental waste. Parents are upset by a mound of plastic left behind after their child opens a toy. Sustainable packaging, as well as less packaging material in general, are more appealing to consumers and gift-givers. In addition to replacing plastic packaging with sustainable materials, some companies are opting to make their packaging part of the toy’s play pattern to completely eliminate waste. One example of this is hand2mind’s World of Gemstones Dig Kit. The product’s packaging doubles as a display case, so kids can show off their discoveries and teach their friends about them, too. Learning Resources’ NoodleKnockout Fine Motor Game comes in a zero-waste box that serves as both the gameboard and storage for the game pieces. 

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. toy industry has gone from a few smaller eco-friendly players to many companies — big and small — that are finding ways to reduce their environmental footprint. For example, Melissa & Doug recently launched Project Restore, ensuring that more than half of its wood products will come from sustainable, responsibly managed forests and be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified by 2025.

Since it’s not always easy for companies to figure out how to shift into more sustainable practices, The Toy Association introduced its Smart Packaging Initiative (SPI) Tool, designed to “help companies make simple packaging changes that can benefit the environment even as they construct innovative package designs.” Working in partnership with The Walt Disney Co., the SPI tool allows toy companies to determine the environmental impact of their packaging, test alternatives, and benchmark the impact of their designs against those produced by the rest of the industry. The tool is available to Toy Association members.

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