The real cost of toys

Richard Heayes looks at how our industry manages the delicate balancing act between making great products and also being environmentally conscientious.
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When I started out in design, I was really just interested in creating cutting edge products which looked cool with great features - what I quickly learned is that all of those design decisions have an environmental cost.

I remember my very first trip to a Chinese vendor some 20 years ago. After the buzz of visiting Hong Kong for the first time, it struck me that I wasn’t sure I was going to like what I saw the next day, visiting vendors in Shenzhen.

However, walking through the many floors of the first vendor, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure this was no EU factory, but it was well organised with smartly dressed, mainly young adult workers.

Back in the Nineties, the cost of labour in China was so low it barely figured on the cost calculations. I saw some crazy things being done to avoid the investment in machinery. Thankfully, things are now changing for the better and the impact of labour and materials is being taken more seriously by all responsible global corporations.

The toy business was one of the first western businesses to enter China, so we should set the standard for others to follow.

It was pleasing to see Hasbro awarded for its recycling and sourcing efforts on paper and card for packaging, one of many environmental initiatives they are taking.

LEGO have also heavily invested in its efforts to find replacements for oil-based plastics. If they crack it, they could be a fantastic material for a manner of different uses. In fact, most major toy companies have ethical issues high on their agendas - that’s no surprise but it’s good to see the industry continuing to step up.

However, the balance between making great products and also being environmentally aware is a continuous challenge.

Putting electronics inside a sealed unit for example is great for manufacturing and reliability, but you can’t recycle it resulting in several electronic toys being tossed into landfill.

Good toys and games should promote wellbeing. Play is good for us all but when those toys have had their day, they cannot just end up decaying and contaminating the planet. That just isn’t sustainable and it isn’t good business.

It’s up to everybody in the product development chain to think carefully about the decisions they make as they will have a direct impact on the environment (every new product does).

Creating quality products that last, which can be easily recycled as well as implementing ethical sourcing will not only be good for business but good for our children's future.

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