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Toys = Garbage: Sustainablity Ought to be Child’s Play

Since I became I parent eight years ago, I have become acutely aware and more and more incensed by the extent to which children’s toys are, in almost every respect, garbage from the very moment of purchase. Now it is a truism of many product life cycles that an object begins its depreciation in value from the moment of purchase. This has been true, with few exceptions, of cars for time immemorial. It is not true, though, for example of books, at least very little changes about their use value over time, though their resale value mostly declines. There are also a category of classic toys (Lego, Lincoln Logs, Meccano, others???) which are so “open” by design that their use over time is almost inexhaustible: both in the sense that they are infinitely configurable (doubt this, see the entire genre of online video made with Lego animations) and virtually indestructible.

For me it all started with the birth of my daughter Maggie in 2000. From the first visitors to the hospital to the end of that year, Maggie must have received no fewer that thirty stuffed animals as gifts. To make the obvious point, I’m not sure that any child needs that many “stuffies”…ever. But certainly it isn’t nuts for me to think that no baby needs so many. People buy them because they’re cute, the price is right, they are almost universally unobjectionable. So, good, there’s a strong line of business for toy makers. Nevermind that these things are made from all the world’s most unnatural fibres right in up to toxic materials (see the trailer for the new film My Toxic Baby to see the full extent of this nightmare). But, increasingly any normal kids room looks like a garbage dump to me.

Toys are, as you can imagine, a huge global business. They are increasingly things that are made mostly if not entirely of unrecoverable (cannot be recycled) plastic, and don’t even get me started on the packaging: the least of its offences these days is its wastefulness; it is starting to require an engineering degree to get full access to the booty trapped under the plastic wrap, tape and metal ties. However, there is a special kind of insult in the crappiness of all this stuff, which is that we give it to our children, passing on the insult to them (oblivious though they may be). Parents (mea culpa) are largely responsible for not challenging this status quo. Problem is, like lots of system change, it is hard to know where to get started.

As one reads about the innovation and invention in the field of dreams of our children’s playthings, one scarcely ever reads about how manufacturing processes or materials are being revolutionized, thus saving us the explosive growth of landfills, not to mention the plain crumminess of design & quality.

Longstanding hero of playland is the mighty Danish empire of Lego. The multi-colored blocks have been a staple of childhood for over 60 years. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Sunday Business section of the New York Times ran a story about Lego’s growth, spurred on by movie tie-ins and licensing deals. Nothing new or shocking about this, but it shows where the attention of this once brilliant toymaker is turning. Much ink has be spilled on the failing fortunes of the once great company (still in the top 10 globally), and much of it praising the company’s innovativeness: giving examples of Lego Factory, Lego Universe, and the Bionicle line. Notwithstanding that Lego’s business is still largely focused on plastic, their recent moves into gaming and online platforms represents the potential for a smaller, more intelligent lifecycle footprint.

Right here at home in Toronto are two of the biggest success toy stories of the last decade: one is the Webkinz platform by legacy Canadian toymaker, family owned and operated Ganz; and the more recent success of the Bakugan franchise by the upstart SpinMaster, started by three boyhood friends who ended up at business school together. On the one hand, I’d like to celebrate these local success stories, but I am also troubled by the fact that both these businesses, while innovative in many respects and certainly financially successful, are still too focused on narrow measures of success.

We need to start thinking more seriously about the sustainability of all businesses, but in the case of children’s toys it oughta be a no-brainer. The Bakugan story is at least partly about success by price point, but there are plenty of popular high cost toys, from Lego sets that go for $80 and up, to game systems like Wii, Xbox, and others, not to mention the price of the games themselves. In other words, parents might well tolerate higher costs for better products. The marketing/advertising related costs of the toy industry are another travesty, especially when these thing are and can be so effectively marketed by word of mouth.

It turns out (at least according to the Times article) that toy sales are also fairly recession-proof. With these dynamics of market resilience, this seems a sector ripe for much deeper and sustainable innovation. Anybody wanna play in that sandbox?

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