It was 15 years ago that the toy industry veteran Steve Cox, was a part of a team that made the first efforts to launch a sustainable range of plush toys to the children’s market.
As is the risk taken by all pioneers of their time, this particular mission didn’t land, and the range – charged with being guilty of “simply not being soft enough” – never really took off.
Half a generation later, however, and in his role as UK sales director with Keel Toys, Cox is pleased to be part of a team that has finally got the concept right. It’s, of course, the Keel Eco range that he – and the Keel Toys team around him – now champion as being at the vanguard of change for the industry.
Declared a Hero Product of the 2020 London Toy Fair and a stand out range named among retailer Selfridge’s listing of top toys for this Christmas, Keel Eco has already gone some way to put itself on the radar.
A selection of plush toys depicting some of the world’s rarest and most endangered species, each product made is from 14 recycled plastic bottles and comes together as a collection that aims to bring the conversation of sustainability into the heart of homes across the UK.
Now with a deserved sense of pride in his work, Cox presents the latest tagline for the 2021 range of soft plush; ‘toys that don’t cost the Earth.’ A double-header, he calls it, which taps into both the consumer’s increasing awareness of the sustainability crisis, and the economic fall-out of a coronavirus pandemic that continues to take its toll.
For nature-loving Cox – who tells ToyNews that he spent his last lockdown period among horses and the open air – the establishment of the range, and the subsequent expansion into new ranges, sizes, and even a nursery selection, could well be one of the most important moments of his career.
“It’s a purely personal thing,” he tells us. “I’ve been in the toy industry for 20 years now, and for me, this is one of the most important things; the environment, the economy, the green politics of life, it’s all very, very important to me personally.
“So, for me, having this product come through now – and seeing it as a potential shift in how everyone can start manufacturing product and create more of a circular economy – it’s a great place to be, at the vanguard of it.”
The new additions to the range expand on the endangered animals collection, with a lemur, red panda and rhinoceros added to the mix in a variety of sizes. On top of that, and in response to demand from stockists like the UK’s zoos through whom Keel Toys sources much of its Keel Eco business, the collection has diversified into British Wildlife, highlighting the plight of some of our indigenous animals, including the hedgehog.
“Hand on heart,” says Cox, “this is the most comprehensive eco range out there in soft toy form. We’re not following in the shadow of anyone with this launch, we’re leading the way with it.”
The highlight of the expanded line, however, is in the positioning that Keel Toys and the Keel Eco range has now made for the baby and nursery market. Toys, musical toys, rattle, comfort blankets; all manufactured from sustainable materials such as recycled plastics and FSC certified wood, makes up its baby range, headlined by an endearing koala and zebra collection.
“The nursery market has been very strong during lockdown, and retailers are doing big numbers,” says Cox. “Online has obviously been massive and the online demand for nursery products has been equally as strong. It was an obvious move for us to bring the Keel Eco concept into the nursery market.
“The next generation of mothers coming through are a lot keener on eco-friendly toys, this is a movement that really is travelling forwards and gathering pace. Parents want their children to grow up with products and brands that are good for them and good for the world they’re going to inherit, it was an obvious next step for us to be a part of that.”
When it comes to the business of sustainability, Cox is clued up. He also recognises that there’s a long way to go. Not just for the toy industry, not just for Keel Toys itself, but the behaviours of the world’s economy and the consumers that fuel it.
“Talking to people in the know, the search for a properly biodegradable plastic is about five years away, but the tech is coming through,” he tells ToyNews. “And for now, the more we work in conjunction as a product chain from source to consumer, the better.
“There’s a big message to carry with this movement, that it’s not only about the product, sustainability is so much more than a product line. The message has to be used intrinsically within the business.
“That’s what we’re doing. We’re not perfect. No one is perfect. But, if the step you’re taking is better than the one you took before, then you’re going in the right direction. I still think each of us have to adjust our attitudes. Would we be happy to consumer less? Reuse more? Aim for a circular economy, and adjust business models around that?
“Until we get that shift of emphasis, it won’t really change that much.”
But it’s got to start somewhere. And that somewhere for Keel Toys has been with the network of UK zoos that it continues to supply in great demand, and the growing number of independent toy retailers that pick up and sell the line in increasing numbers.
“The zoos have really taken to the range, really very strongly,” says Cox. “We have been really pleased with the reaction, and I am having meetings with them now for 2021, meanwhile, the retail side is really starting to build. Toytown has done incredibly well with Keel Eco, and Play-Room has been very supportive of us.”
So the message is getting out there, and the demand for a sustainable plush toy is growing ever more fervent.
“Hopefully at some point we’ll be able to get to a soft toy that is in its own right, biodegradable,” says Cox. “That is still a long way off.”