Spielwarenmesse: We Want Green! Interview with Harald Käb

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Lust auf Grün! Interview mit Harald Käb
  Movers & shakers

Movers & shakers

We Want Green! Interview with Harald Käb

from Eva Stemmer und Jörg Meister

Almost ten years ago, Toys go Green was a trending topic at Spielwarenmesse® 2011. Even then, it was clear that it was not just a passing fad. A collective change of awareness was due, the desire to act in a more sustainable way. And yet, finding the right approach into this complex topic was, for the most part, not simple. Much has changed since then.

Environmental awareness is everywhere

Technologically, the industry has taken a big step forward – nowadays we have sophisticated materials made out of renewable resources and manufacturing processes have grown out of the laboratory stage.

Socially, the pressure has grown immensely. Especially our target group values transparency and true sustainability, they are the ones taking their anger about ecological wrongdoings to the streets.

Legally, the legislative cogs are starting to turn. It is now only a question of when the time will come for sharper regulations concerning the ecological aspects of production.

We can do more

Harald Käb, founder and Managing Director of narocon InnovationConsulting, advises companies in questions of sustainability and has been devoted to non-fossil materials and sustainable manufacturing processes for more than twenty years. Last year, he was one of the co-organisers of the trade conference bio!TOY, which for the first time took place especially for the toy industry, making it a platform for starting conversations between industry players. In this interview, Käb discusses the best approaches to the topic of sustainability for toy companies, what he predicts for bio-based plastics in the toy industry – and why he believes that sustainability cannot just be a matter of wanting it or not.


Mr Käb, sustainability and bio-based materials have been your daily bread for many years. How has this field developed since you have been a part of it? And what is the status quo today?

Harald Käb

Harald Käb: Technologically, great achievements have been made. Today there are many bio-based multifunctional polymers and materials. They have the same, or even new, qualities and are no longer made of oil or natural gas. Because of this, the energy sector’s goal of “away from fossil fuels and over to renewable resources!” is also something the plastics industry can reach. However, not much has happened in the market, the barriers one must overcome to enter are still very high. For that to change, companies and governments must do more. I have the feeling that companies want it even more than the government does…

You organised the bio!TOY conference in 2019 together with Michael Thielen from bioplastics magazine. The toy industry is a plastic business, how were your ideas received?

H. K.: We established many contacts ahead of time. With 80 participants, we were very happy with the attendance, leading brands such as Geobra Brandstätter, Habermaass, Ravensburger, Lego and Zapf showed up. Platforms like the German Toy Industry Association DVSI and Spielwarenmesse eG are interested, which is great and important.

Let’s stay with plastics - which is a very diverse and sometimes confusing topic. There are countless new plastics - but they are not all of the same quality… Where can a manufacturer that would like to make a change start?

H. K.: The first step is always the development of internal competence. Relevant employees with enough budget and time are necessary, which is something management must make a priority and support. The projects will then follow on their own. Companies that are serious can seek professional advice - which is available at affordable prices - to help avoid frustrating or even expensive mistakes and be efficient while doing so.

Bio-based, biodegradable, blend plastics, recycled materials – in the advertisements, everything seems to be perfect and sustainable. Is there such a thing as true sustainability in production?

H. K.: Sustainability is always more a process than a state – and a permanent ambition. The goal being to improve in steps of 10, 20, or more percent in comparison with the current status. We advise using the carbon footprint as a guiding measurement for this and setting goals towards higher recyclability of products and packaging without cutbacks on (high!) quality. Apply that to product design and choice of material and it will become simple. Being able to measure and prove progress is important, even if only in approximate figures.

Scientists have been calling for change in the handling of raw materials and energy for decades – especially in the manufacturing industry. With Fridays for Future, the pressure has risen. Now, corona happened – how can the pressure for change be maintained, and by whom?

H. K.: Crises always increase competitive pressure. Whoever is not well-positioned, cannot or does not want to change will easily fall victim to it. Whoever does not consider climate change and develop an intelligent adjustment strategy will, in five to ten years, find themselves in a different world, in which sustainable products with low carbon footprints are preferred. The government will be imposing taxes and guiding the way, and kids will be schooling their parents, because they will otherwise have to live in a hotter and more polluted world. This better work out!

Much has happened since Spielwarenmesse® 2011 proclaimed Toys go Green – but the great revolution has not taken place. How sustainable will the toy industry become in the next ten years?

H. K.: I do not know. But I hope for the following situation by then: the topic is supported by various company and industry initiatives that stand up for sustainability, set out goals, promote science, and shoulder responsibility. Every toy manufacturer and retailer with self-respect has an organic product line, just like in the food industry - with recycled and bio-based materials. Additionally, product and packaging design is thoroughly checked and oriented towards longevity, recyclability, and reuse. The industry takes a pioneering role and uses its proximity to children and families, and they love it.

We Want Green! – where is the best place to start for people who agree? And for everyone else: How can their desire be awoken?

H. K.: Seek out competent role models and doers, hire a 24-year old environmental engineer who goes to demonstrations in her free time as a Project Manager. Let her be creative and unpleasantly demanding. Get students on board with internships and let their team be creative. Take them seriously and laugh with them a lot. Build upon interdisciplinary teams and save money elsewhere. Keep this in mind: This is not about desire; it is about making sure everyone’s future takes place in good conditions. The younger generation needs to take the lead, the experienced one support them.

Mr Käb, thank you for the conversation.


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