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Looking for toys that don’t cost the earth


Photo: but he likes them better at the toy store than when he is at home (Flickr/Horizontal.Integration)


With less than two months to go until Christmas, how do you fill your kids’ stockings while keeping your spending ethical and sustainable?

Guest writer Deborah Andrich reviews the sustainability and human rights records of the most popular toy manufacturers, and points out some other ideas and approaches when buying  toys, games or other gifts for children.

Company Ratings

A quick look at any of the Top 20 gifts for boys and girls lists doing the rounds shows that most of the popular or recommended choices are produced by the major toy and game  manufacturers–Mattel, Lego, Hasbro and MGA Entertainment–with just a couple from smaller companies that make or supply products like Slushy and Popcorn Makers.

Complex supply chains and mixed levels of transparency mean it is not always easy for Australian consumers to have a clear understanding of the impacts of toys on factory workers and the environment.

A  CHOICE survey conducted jointly with Amnesty International in 2008 was designed to investigate which toy manufacturers incorporated a corporate social responsibility (CSR) framework into their operations. Companies that are part of the International Council of Toy Industries have signed up to an ethical manufacturing program that aims  to ensure acceptable labour conditions in toy factories.

The results of the CHOICE survey revealed a mixed bag, ranging from a full commitment to ethical practice to comments that avoided the question

  • “If a factory is unwilling or unable to participate in the ICTI Care Process, Hasbro will not conduct business with this factory.”
  • “we are a family distribution company – we rely on the manufacturer to be responsible”.

The stand-out companies with high codes of conduct were The Lego Group, Hasbro and Disney.

While the CHOICE survey is now easily five years old,and focusses on labour practices. A quick look at the big toy manufacturers’ websites under the ‘Sustainability’ tab (if there is one) can help you to ascertain which companies are at least aware of their impact on social and environmental footprints.

Below is a list of commitments made by The Lego Group, Hasbro, Disney, Sony, and Apple (included here for the interest of electronic gifts). It is readily apparent which companies have the stronger commitments and which have glaring omissions.

Manufacturer Products/Brands Commitments
  • Lego building blocks
  • Signatory to United Nations Global Compact to protect against human rights violations, forced labour, environment and corruption
  • Rated highly by CHOICE/Amnesty for commitment to worker protection practices
  • Zero waste and renewable energy commitment by 2020
  • Baby Alive
  • Littlest Pet Shop
  • My Little Pony
  • Nerf
  • Furby
  • Sesame Street
  • PlayDoh
  • Playskool
  • One Direction
  • SuperSoaker
  • StarWars
  • Transformers
  • Signatory to Australian Packaging Covenant
  • Reduction in paper usage
  • Reporting of GHG (mandatory in many countries)
  • Reduction in water and energy usag
  • Rated highly by CHOICE/Amnesty for commitment to worker protection practices
  • Barbie
  • HotWheels
  • Polly Pocket
  • FisherPrice
  • “avoid fiber from controversial sources”
  • Increase recycled content
  • Increase certified materials eg forest certification
  • Recyclable packaging
  • Failed to respond to CHOICE/Amnesty survey on labour practices despite repeated requesets
MGA Entertainment
  • Lalaloopsy
  • Bratz
  • Little tikes
No statements about sustainability or Corporate Responsibility given on the website
Apple Inc
  • iPad, iPod, iPhone
  • no commitment to human rights, workers rights
  • commitment to reduce carbon footprint (energy, materials, water, transport, recycling)
  • cameras
  • computers
  • Playstation
  • Mobile phones
  • Has no specific goals/aspirations, but is involved in many NGOs, charities etc that focus on local issues – many utilising Sony technology to facilitate that process.

Note: The website of the manufacturer of the Slushy Maker doesn’t have an Australian contact address, or details on place of manufacture, materials used or sustainability commitments. They are also very cheap, which should ring alarm bells with ethically savvy consumers.

CHOICE provides the following advice for consumers concerned about labour practices.

  • Look for details on place of manufacture and contact details. A lack of information may indicate that the products may have been sourced from dubious sources.
  • Check the company website for ethical sourcing statements
  • Is the company a member of an organisation such as ICTI (the International Council of Toy Industries)?
  • Avoid seriously cheap toys – there is probably a good reason why it is cheap (meaning potentially poor conditions for workers) .

Fair and sustainable alternatives

What if you want to go one step further and avoid mainstream toys?

Organisations such as Oxfam (kids musical instruments) and Fairtrade (chocolate for your advent calendar or Kris Kringle) can be relied upon to ensure ethical and sustainable production of products. There are plenty of other companies that specialise in eco-friendly toys and a myriad of innovative gift ideas like recycled crayons, a wooden bike that grows with your child or a kid’s organic veggie kit.

If electronic gadgetry is a must-have, many manufacturers offer re-furbished equipment at a fraction of the cost; or search for second-hand/barely used on sites such as eBay, Gumtree or Tushare. At least that way more rare-earth minerals won’t be dug up to make a new one.

How about giving an experience as opposed to an object? Ideas include a cooking class, aerial trapeze lessons, a show, or a guided bushwalk.

What about getting a bit creative this Christmas? Hand made gifts can be a great sustainable alternative. Check out sites like Upcyclethat  for funky, crafty toy ideas.

Lastly, shop local. By shopping in your local neighborhood, you can find products that use local materials and ingredients, need less transport for shipping, and support your local economy.

Checking it Twice

Do you want ideas for gifts that make a positive difference? Are better for the environment? Are fairly traded? And minimise harm to animals?

Otter’s new service Checking it Twice provides free personalised gift advice.

Packaging and wrapping

Consider the packaging the toy comes in. Are there endless metal ties holding everything in place on the plastic ? Is the plastic recyclable?

And is your Christmas wrapping paper made from recycled paper? Here are some sustainable wrapping ideas:

  1. Wrap with cloth
  2. Re-use! Iron flat last years wrapping paper.
  3. Recycle old maps, music sheets and magazines, or wash out crisp packets and use the shiny interior.
  4. Make your own paper and tags

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