Spielwarenmesse: Sustainability in the production and retailing of toys

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Nachhaltigkeit in der Produktion & im Handel mit Spielwaren


Sustainability in the production and retailing of toys

from Eva Stemmer und Jörg Meister

Where does sustainability begin? When it comes to toys, eco-friendliness and sustainability are becoming increasingly important. But environmental responsibility cannot be shifted to just one player. Manufacturers, retailers, buyers and politicians all need to act responsibly and keep future generations in mind. And there are already some positive examples of this.

The term sustainable development was popularised in 1987 through the Brundtland Report, one of the most frequently cited works of environmental and development literature:


Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This means not depleting resources at the expense of future generations, but promoting lasting stability by balancing environmental, economic and social goals. A lot has happened – and not happened – since the report was published.

Responsibility is key

Who should show good example?

  • The users who decide with each purchase what is consumed and how?
  • The governments who define the right way to act responsibly and must regulate and monitor this?
  • The retailers who should choose responsibly when deciding on which products to stock?
  • The manufacturers who should act and produce properly?

When it comes down to it, everyone needs to play their part in this mammoth “sustainable change” project. The good news is that movement can already be seen across the board!

Different approaches to sustainable production

There are now various different established approaches to sustainable production. Yet it would be unrealistic to turn all manufacturing processes on their head in one go.

It is essential that we reflect on our own circumstances. A commitment to sustainable production must be reflected in the company ethos. And often it is not even about change, but raising awareness of the existing potential and making improvements where there are weaknesses. When you consider the aspect of product durability, many companies are already making great strides.


Take Lego as an example: the bricks have been compatible with each other for generations and are extremely durable. Instead of being thrown away, they are kept and handed down, retaining both their value and shape. And if they do end up getting broken, they can be channelled back into the material cycle, as they are produced from one single material.

And this already ticks a second sustainability box: only products that can be broken down into their individual materials can be properly recycled, giving them a “second product life”.

Big Bobby Car Next
Big Bobby Car Next

Take the BIG Bobby Car, which has been constructed the same way for decades:
instead of using lots of individual, interconnected components, the car makes do with one big part. This reduces the potential for damage. There are only a few joints, which means that the car is less prone to obsolescence.

The customer can swap and repair damaged add-on parts, without having to shell out for transport or maintenance services. With neither bulky items nor unnecessary weight to be transported, fewer energy resources are consumed. This extends the product’s lifespan so that it does not simply end up on the scrapheap.

Compact and multifunctional with less material

Another aspect of sustainability: products are becoming virtual, increasingly compact and multifunctional and can be manufactured with less material, making them cheaper. However, this also has its downsides, as lower costs can lead to greater consumption and faster replacement of consumer goods.

New smartphones act as “black boxes” and can be used to perform many different functions. A single device then replaces several products, thereby reducing the number of things we surround ourselves with. Linking apps and traditional toys is another way to digitise toys without adding electronic devices.

But multifunctional ideas come in other forms as well. Increasingly, the toy industry is incorporating the packaging and cardboard boxes into its games as well. Right from the product design stage, all components can be considered for the play experience. More fun, less waste.


The origins of a product and its components also play a big role in terms of the environmental footprint. For example, cardboard boxes produced in Asia from wood sourced from European forests obviously have a greater energy footprint than those produced from locally sourced raw materials from sustainably managed forests.

Naturally, not every material has the same environmental footprint. Some, such as aluminium, require an immense amount of energy during production. Whether this extra energy expenditure can be made up for again throughout the product life cycle based on the material properties – thus making the material more eco-friendly than others – is questionable.

New materials

Haba Clutching toy Color Arch
Haba Clutching toy Color Arch made of maple, beech and biopolymers from renewable raw materials
My First Camera by Plan Toys
My First Camera by Plan Toys made of PlanWood

So there is great demand for environmentally-friendly materials – and the industry is already responding with a wide selection. Arboform is one such new material. Synthesised from by-products from the paper industry, it has similar properties to conventional plastics but is 100% degradable. Manufacturers such as Haba and Schleich are already finding initial ways to experiment with this material. Meanwhile, wooden toy manufacturer PlanToys is using PlanWood, a wood-based, injection-moulded material.

Many good materials do not need to be concealed under paint finishes or coatings. They have character and imply quality. They stand the test of time – and some can even age and acquire an attractive sheen. Take wood and leather: products made from these only come to life through use. “A” product becomes “my” product – and is loved all the more for the rough edges acquired throughout its life. Numerous companies have recognised this and are offering “mass customising”, with personalised mass-produced goods.

Ease of repair

Do you maybe remember the first cuddly toy you took a particular shine to? If an ear or eye fell off, your granny lovingly repaired it. Which takes us to the next step in sustainability: ease of repair for the user. This saves on storage, logistics and staff – and extends the product life.

Heunec: Gustav
Plush dog "Gustav" from Heunec, a Cradle to Cradle Basic certified plush toy

And when the product does eventually reach the end of its useful life cycle, it should ideally find its way back into the material cycle again – or it should be possible to compost it completely. One example from the toy industry: in 2013, Heunec presented what it said was the world’s first cradle-to-cradle certified soft toy whose materials could be recycled following its “life as a stuffed animal”.

Many manufacturers advertise their use of recycled materials. Unfortunately, these often require more energy in the manufacturing process than new materials. And so-called blends, or composite materials made of plastic and biological filling material, can only be thermally recycled, as there is no real material cycle for them. So not all recycled materials are equally sustainable. The individual energy footprint is key.


However, what really matters, and this particularly holds for the toy sector, is the relevance of the product. The manufacturing method, origin and materials are not what make a toy desirable, ensuring they will be valued playthings and fun to play with for a long time. It is the design, taking into account the needs of the user.

And this is where the responsibility also lies with retailers, as they determine what is offered for sale. Themes that stand the test of time, not hyped or short-term trends, bring forth sustainable toys. Thankfully, children’s needs do not really change and development stages have largely stayed the same for generations.

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