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Licensing Special: Products of Change and the sustainability of toys

From a staple of the licensing and merchandising industry to becoming the face for the sweeping change rumbling through it and the minds of consumers across the UK, Helena Mansell Stopher is the director of Products of Change, a platform on a mission to bring sustainability into the heart of the consumer products space.

ToyNews catches up with the sustainability specialist to talk about shifting consumer mindsets, the impact of the movement on the toy industry specifically, and the next moves for the Products of Change platform.

Hi Helena, thanks for chatting with us. To start off, can you talk us through Products of Change? What is the concept, and what is it setting out to achieve in the consumer products space?

Of course, I would love to. Products of Change is currently transitioning from a local group discussing sustainable practices, to a global sustainable networking group driven through an online digital hub. The hub will enable members to be sustainably educated through research and educational content, to learn through our webinars and podcast for quick on the go learning, as well as connect through our members hub on site directly to share best practice and gain knowledge.

How did the move all come about for you? What drives you and the mission statement of Products of Change?

It was during my time as licensing director of National Geographic Partners that the devastating effect of climate change and the impact that the consumer goods industry was having on the environment really hit home, we worked extremely closely with the National Geographic Society and once I knew what we were doing, I couldn’t ignore it.

I got a small group of leaders within the industry together to discuss how we can start to make change through sharing best practice. Our mission statement is really ‘educating to inform change’ through bite size pieces of content, we really want to drive peer to peer learning as the only way we can have a positive impact is if we come together collectively to do this.

What has reception been like from across the industries to Products of Change and the movement that you guys are championing? Why is now the right time for everyone to be joining the ‘movement’?

It’s been a phenomenal response, what is encouraging to see is that people truly want to make sustainable change but they just don’t know where to start. Covid has made 2020 the toughest year for business and though many companies are focusing on keeping their head above water, what has become more apparent is the relationship between human activity/business and the natural world, they are all interlinked and have dramatic effects on each other.

If we are to future proof our business we must first look at how we extract materials, our transportation, our carbon footprint, the list goes on to reviewing the full lifecycle and impact of actually creating product, we can then start to build better systems that don’t harm the environment and enable us to look after the planet and its wildlife, and in-turn look after ourselves…. To me this is the reason why the movement is so important now, we have to be the first generation that creates this new path forward for the next generation to follow and excel.

If we look at the toy space specifically – we are seeing a lot more attention being paid to the topic of sustainability from retail and toy brand perspectives, but there’s still a long way to go. Can you talk us through some of the activity Products of Change is starting to see in this department? How do we start to get businesses to think about the significance of the issue today?

For me the toy industry has some of the most imaginative inventors, there are so many elements to play with and because of this I really do feel the industry can start to take a lead in this area, though the flip side of this is the mix of material input in the toy process as it does pose large challenges for the end of life of a product.

There are some amazing initiatives out there, new materials that will enable the market to move forward and circular business models which will change how we look at product design, there is monumental movement happening here.

The European parliament and most recently the UK government have issued new legislation for plastics and packaging, that for the UK will come in to effect in the next 17 months, this has woken up many retailers and manufacturers as if you don’t have 30 per cent of recycled plastic in your packaging you will be taxed, the infrastructure is not yet in place to supply such a large demand so you can imagine what’s happening in the background to supply this material in time for the April 2022 start date.

Because of this, Products of Change is working closely with the leading children’s UK educator Wastebusters who deliver in class environmental education to all UK schools. Wastebusters have built a market wide recycling infrastructure for hard to recycle plastic toys and plush. We are working with them to drive a national campaign called Recycle to Read (R2R), working with the Children’s Literacy Trust to deliver the programme across schools and retail, children will bring in toys/plush/clothing/waste electronic to be swapped in school and at retail for eco points, the eco point will buy schools books and equipment to aid education.

The R2R programme launches for Waste Week in March 2021 and is currently looking for all producers and brand owners to become part of the programme, you can find out more here https://toytakeback.org. For the Wastebuster campaign we are also working with EPPIC (the extended plastic partnership for innovation within circularity) for their flexible infrastructure which has just launched with the Co-Op and will roll out across retail in the coming months, as well as building a plastics group within Products of Change that is lobbying for parity with plastic signposting, we are working with WRAP, OPRL and a handful of leaders to achieve this.

When we focus on toys, the design stage seems the most fundamental to promote sustainability with, design sustainability into a product from the outset. How integral do you think this is to the idea of sustainability in the children’s space?

The design stage is one of the most important stages of creating sustainable product, It’s so much harder and more costly to add sustainability in at the end of producing something. Designing sustainably is more than just using a recycled material, it’s also asking questions like what happens at the end of life of a product and how do you design so that it can be easily recycled, how do you keep a product in circulation (are there bits that can be reused?) etc. We are designing products for the future generation, a generation who is more aware of climate change than we were and is leading their purchasing decisions.

We also have to work together to educate consumers, currently big box means big value, we have created that, so we can reverse that rule and build new value in. The packaging can becomes an integrated part of the toy (not to be thrown away) the opening of a product a positive experience, I’m looking forward to seeing some creative packaging solutions coming through over the next few months.

Do you think the toy industry is being reactive enough to the issue of sustainability? Big question – is it right to be reactive, or should businesses be setting the standard for the consumer?

I think that the full consumer goods industry is being reactive, there’s a few standout leaders like Unilever, Ikea, LEGO that have been building sustainable practices into their business for the last ten years, but they still have their challenges. Even the fashion industry who is ahead of the toy industry started the conversation with launching small collections of ‘eco’ product, priced higher as an alternative for the consumer, not necessarily looking at delivering every day sustainable product at a fair price, however there are a few leaders two being Asda and H&M, delivering their everyday sustainable clothing at the same price.

The needle is moving with many companies now stating their intentions of what they want to achieve over the next ten years to become a more sustainable business, we need to have the faith that this will all be delivered.

Can you talk us through the Sustainability in Licensing Conference – what have you got planned for the big event this year… and however it may look this year?

Yes of course, the event has been pushed back to November the 25th due to Covid, we would absolutely love to still run the event physical but with guidelines changing daily we are tracking them to see what our options are for the November date.

Covid related issues aside the conference was created to be the starting point for the industry to learn more and build sustainable practices in their business. We have an amazing line up of presenters talking about the importance of design, new ways of thinking such as the circular economy, new technologies such as break down plastic and new tech within manufacturing, through to marketing, insights and finance, our aim is to touch on all the core pillars of creating a more sustainable business for the industry.

Thanks Helena, anything you’d like to shout about?

I’m just really pleased that the conversation has started, we have a long way to go but I do believe that together we can do this, we can no longer use sustainability as a competitive advantage, we must share the knowledge we have to accelerate change and start to re-imagining what a sustainable future will look like across the full supply chain and end of product life.

My ambition is that through Products of Change we can cooperatively achieve this change together.

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