Alain De Rauw is lamenting that at a New York Toy Fair housing over 1000 exhibitors, he hasn’t any competitors in the busy toy marketplace.
To those who don’t know the director of Plan Toys, that could most certainly be construed as an almighty humble-brag. But before we bring out the tiny violins, there’s a sincerity in the Belgian toy magnate’s tone that paints a very different picture.
De Rauw, after all, heads up the only known toy company to be what he calls ‘truly sustainable,’ a message his firm has been pushing for the last 25 years, long before the conversation around plastics picked up such attention from media outlets the world over.
Recent weeks have seen the topic of plastics and plastic waste become the subject of fiery discussions across a multitude of industries, brought to light by the release of some staggering figures surrounding the issue.
The conversation itself has been spurred by China’s recent refusal to accept any more foreign waste for recycling, forcing the UK to face up to its own plastic waste output. And that is no small issue by any measure. According to the HMRC, the UK exported 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste for recycling to nations like China in 2014 alone, while it was left with 1,244,774 tonnes of packaging sent either to landfill or incineration in 2016.
Earlier this year, Theresa May called out the UK’s plastic waste problem, labelling it as ‘one of the great environmental scourges of our time,’ adding that ‘in the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1000 Royal Albert Halls.’
"In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1000 Royal Albert Halls."
Theresa May, PM
Yes, the statement may be dripping with the casual privileged nuances only to be expected, but the sentiment is not lost, supporting May’s long-term strategy to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042.
While according to the BTHA, toy and hobby packaging equates to only 0.7 per cent of all retail packaging and 0.4 per cent of all packaging, with approximately 90 per cent of it being recyclable, the topic of sustainability continues to pick up recognition within the industry. Not only are questions now starting to be asked of how May’s 25-year plan to eliminate plastic waste will impact upon the market’s packaging strategy moving forward, but also how the toy space can continue to push the message of sustainability within its product output.
It’s the reason why, sat with De Rauw in a New York exhibition hall and sipping from a recycled coffee cup, the director’s appeal for more competition in the space in which he operates is less of a brag and more of a heartfelt plea.
“We hate waste,” says De Rauw. “It was the vision of the founder to one day end waste and a message that we continue to push to this day.”
Each product in the Plan Toys portfolio is produced from this recycled wood, sourced from the rubber tree plantations of Thailand and brought into the factory by the truckload where it is heated and dried. Even the left over sawdust is mixed with a small dose of organic pigment or a less than one per cent of naturally occurring glue, meaning it can mould and colour its wood without the use of chemicals.
“It’s time consuming and expensive, yes, but we don’t care because we are simply making the best products with the best results for the environment,” says De Rauw. Not only is Plan Toys the only toy company to be utilising the leftover material from Thailand’s rubber tree plantations, it is also the only one to be producing its own energy to power its factory, using any leftover wood as pellets of energy.
De Rauw continues: “This is why we really are not joking when we talk about just how seriously we take sustainability. We really have everything in place and when we say we are the most beautiful company in the world, this is what we mean. The biggest issue we have is bringing the consumer around to the same way of thinking.”
"It was the vision of the founder to one day end waste and a message that we continue to push to this day."
Alain De Rauw, Plan Toys
There is no getting away from the fact that the toy industry is one that must follow where consumer habits lead. It has, after all, been buoyed through arguably one of its toughest years in recent history by the surge in demand for categories such as collectables. So while every intention may be good, the power is in public hands.
“Sustainability is a big issue for us,” Dr Wendy Hamilton, owner of the independent UK toy retailer, Grasshopper Toys tells ToyNews. “We are acutely aware that we are providing toys and learning experiences to young children who face an increasingly polluted world, and it’s a reality that doesn’t sit easy with us.”
Last year, the collectables market grew 7.5 per cent, helping to buoy the overall UK toy market that totalled £3.4 billion in sales through 2017. While many of today’s collectable toys look to tap into the fandom that will not view them simply as throwaway items, LEGO being a prime example (and one that has made publicly concerted efforts to encourage a sustainable model within the toy industry), it is to Hamilton’s chagrin that this isn’t always the case.
“We try to select suppliers who do not plastic wrap their products but wrap in cardboard, fabrics or have as little packaging as possible,” she continues. “We face the headache of overly plastic and packaged collectable toys with frustration; on the one hand as a business we need to supply what our customers want, on the other, we hate that this stuff is produced in the first place.
“The only solution is for us to stock the minimum lines of these ranges that we can get away with and focus our business on the more durable, longer lasting toys.”
Yet, while the majority of last year’s sales was made up by the likes of collectables, are we on the cusp of seeing a shift in the consumer mind set?
One spokesperson from Green Toys certainly seems to think so, reporting continued growth for the US toy firm that promotes sustainability through the US production of toys and play-sets made from recycled plastic milk bottles.
“We have seen growth over the last three years, which is really encouraging, not just for us but for what this means for the general trend among consumers,” she tells ToyNews. “We really feel that families are starting to see the importance of sustainable toys, and they are beginning to want to spend a bit more on a product that boasts not only real quality and longevity, but ethical and environmental messaging, too.”
Testament to this is that Green Toys – distributed in the UK through Jumbo Games – has recently signed with Sesame Workshop to bring the first fully licensed Sesame Street products into the Green Toys fold. In a US market that places a lot of emphasis on its licenses, this is a major coup for the toy firm.
"We try to select suppliers who do not plastic wrap their products but wrap in cardboard, fabrics or have as little packaging as possible."
Dr Wendy Hamilton, Owner of Grasshopper Toys
“It’s amazing to have Sesame on board with us and have them behind the ethos of Green Toys and sustainability. They love what we are doing in the industry and we are hoping that this is the first of many major children’s entertainment licensors.”
With this in mind, are we likely to see Green Toys begin to line the shelves of retailers such as Target in the US, or Plan Toys products accommodated among the aisles of B&M?
Probably not any time soon, is the consensus from both. Thankfully, until the day consumer demand makes that ultimate shift towards sustainability in the toys they demand, we have bodies such as the BTHA.
“The BTHA takes the impact of plastic on the environment very seriously,” says Natasha Crookes, director of public affairs and communications.
“When coming into membership, companies must sign a Code of Practice which requires members to use their best endeavours to minimise any negative environmental impact of conducting business, including all aspects of product and packaging design, production and distribution.
“Safety of children is our top priority. Not all recycled materials can be used for toy packaging as they don’t meet the toy safety legislation, however efforts have been made to adopt other solutions.
“Here at the BTHA, our members endeavour to limit the use of plastic in packaging and will continue to do so.”
While the discussion is still in its infancy, the march towards environmental sustainability is destined to be a global effort in the advance of a cleaner future for the generations to come.