With 20 green initiatives and counting listed on its website, Golden Bear Toys is leading the field when it comes to environmental best practices. In this feature, published in the Spring/Summer issue of ToyNews magazine, MD Barry Hughes explains why “Play today, protect tomorrow” has become the company’s watchword.
The team at Shropshire-based Golden Bear Toys, “Experts in Play” since 1979, have made a raft of changes to their working practices and premises in order to reduce their impact on the planet. At a time when plenty of firms are “greenwashing” their products or making minimal eco-friendly efforts, Golden Bear is clearly going the extra mile to ensure that sustainability is at the heart of everything it does, whether it’s installing electric charging points in the staff car park or achieving ISO 14001 environmental standard certification.
For MD Barry Hughes, steering the Golden Bear Toys ship towards greener shores is personal as much as political. “Everyone gets job satisfaction from making a difference, it’s certainly where I get most of mine,” he states. “So that was one element behind our shift towards sustainability. Then, as we expanded and the team grew, it became increasingly clear that it was important to our staff, to our retailers, to parents. It’s also becoming more important to kids, and they’re increasingly having more say in purchase decisions.”
Overseen by a sustainability team headed up by Commercial Manager Gareth Lloyd, Golden Bear’s green initiatives are many and varied. Packaging, for example, has been overhauled, and will all be FSC certified by autumn/winter 2023. Plastic ties have been replaced with cardboard equivalents, and product packaging printing is now done using soy inks – making the paper and card easier to recycle. The company’s Hong Kong and UK offices are certified carbon-neutral, while the Golden Bear Toys HQ in Telford operates as a zero-to-landfill site, uses low-energy LED lighting and derives all its electricity from solar panels during the sunnier months of the year.
“All the stuffing in our soft toys has been made from recycled PET bottles for years, but we haven’t really shouted about it,” explains Barry. “Now we’re starting to make sure all our fabric is recycled. We’ve done that across our whole Hey Duggee, Mr Tumble, and The Baby Club ranges, but there’s one product where it’s more difficult, as the outside needs to be more elastic. We haven’t been able to get it 100 per cent recycled yet, so we clearly label it as 95 per cent recycled. It’s important that we’re honest with our customers and our retailers.”
Finding a solution to the industry’s “plastic problem” is one that Golden Bear Toys, and many other companies, are struggling with. “We are actively seeking a long-term solution and are determined to crack the problem without compromising on the highly reputable quality of our products,” Barry asserts. “A lot of it comes down to knowledge, and working with academics, and partners in other industries.” Joining Products of Change and Waste Buster has given the company access to environmental information channels and expertise, while the company is in the process of setting up membership of The Higg Facility Environmental Module (Higg FEM), a sustainability assessment tool that standardises how facilities measure and evaluate their environmental performance, year over year.
For companies wanting to remain at the cutting edge of their industries, operating sustainably is fundamental, Barry believes. “We pride ourselves on being forward-looking, and when it comes to eco issues, the world is only going one way. I think we’re on the leading edge of this and we want to stay there. The rest of the world is going to be going that way as well, so being as eco-friendly as possible is going to put us in a good position internationally as well – and we have strong goals to grow internationally.”
Known historically for its preschool licenses – Golden Bear Toys is the master toy licensee for Hey Duggee, and also holds licenses for Bing and In the Night Garden, among others – the company is increasingly producing its own IP. “Preschool licenses are still very important to us, and we’re continuing to grow that side of the business, but we’ve expanded into the games area, the animatronic plush area with Curlimals [cuddly woodland creatures that move and make cute sounds], and the outdoor market with our Smart Ball. So, going forward, we have a balanced portfolio of licensed and non-licensed properties.”
Having its own IP gives Golden Bear Toys greater freedom to expand globally. “The beauty of having our own intellectual property, like Windy Bums or Curlimals, is that there’s no restrictions in terms of where we can go with it. With licensed properties it can depend on what platform the particular show is available on, and in what territory. With our own IP, it’s simply a case of: how good can we make it?”
As an insight-led and “agile” company, Golden Bear Toys is quick to respond to gaps in the market. The Smart Ball, for instance, was born from research that revealed a lack of age-appropriate football gifts. The Ball contains a sensor that can measure the number, or speed, of kicks, and features light and sound effects. “We’ve got a new ball coming out this year, and we already have plans in place for 2023 and 2024,” says Barry. “What’s great about the product is that while there’s a slight tech element to it, it’s accessible. It doesn’t involve downloading an app or linking it with Bluetooth, it’s ready to use straight from the box.”
That said, licensed products remain huge sellers for the company. “Hey Duggee is number one in the UK, and it’s a fantastic property to be involved with,” says Barry. “Parents as well as kids love the show, and it gives us so much inspiration. In fact, we usually have to whittle down our product ideas as we have so many.” One of the most recent creations, the Hey Duggee Transforming Space Rocket, impressed the judges at January’s Toy Fair and was named one of the show’s Hero Toys. “We’re very proud of the fact that they’re all designed and developed here in the UK,” states Barry.
Golden Bear was able to showcase another innovation at Toy Fair: its Virtual Toy Platform. “We invested in it at the start of the pandemic and we think it’s pretty groundbreaking,” says Barry. “We designed it to show the products in their best light and made it interactive for the buyers, so they didn’t have go to through a death-by-Powerpoint process. And it was a fantastic platform for our international buyers, who could access it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s still a hybrid world, despite Covid being on the wane, and incorporating the system into our physical space at Toy Fair meant that I was able to answer every question that a buyer or retail partner or licensor had, whether it was about the packaging size or the lifestyle images or the TV commercial, because I could go to the touchscreen and find out.”
Barry is understandably proud of Golden Bear’s recent achievements. “What I’m most proud of is that sustainability is now embedded into the fabric of the culture of the company,” he states. The months ahead, however, are sure to bring challenges. “Last year it was the cost of containers. We’ve tried to limit price increases where we can, but the container prices aren’t going to go back to where they were pre-pandemic. And obviously, there are inflationary pressures now, and they’re going to start hitting the market. But I always say, if it was easy, it would be boring.”