July 12, 2007

Q: Any "Conscientious" Toy Companies Out There?

Lead painted Thomas engines, poisonous Veggie Booty powder, rubber duckies with a 5,000-year landfill half-life, the environmental insanity of shipping Fiji Water around the world. DT reader Shawna emailed with a question I've been wondering myself. Are there any "conscientious toy companies" out there?

I'm no xenophobe, but I've become a bit weary of things made in China. I get cheap labor - but I also understand distributed corruption, crappy human rights and a terrifying lack of environmental concerns. I'm trying to be a more conscientious consumer in all parts of my life - toys for the one year old should be part of that. I've told the grandparents to back off with the plastic and the batteries - but I was disappointed to see that even the "hand crafted" wood puzzles she got for her birthday from Melissa and Doug were also made in China. I wrote to ask them their policies on working in China and got a form letter about how they test for lead paint. That's nice - but that wasn't my question. So... I'm willing to pay extra - are you aware of any conscientious toy companies? China manufacturing in and of itself doesn't disqualify - but I want to know that they've at least given some thought to the issues of "fairness" in how they do business.
So, wishful, futile thinking?

I threw the Veggie Booty mention in up there because the CEO himself said he didn't realize his Veggie seasoning was coming from China. The only way this'd work at the moment is for a company to take a pro-active, strategic decision to adhere to a higher standard than mere "legality," but what does that mean? What constitutes a conscientious toy company? Is there such a thing a "Made Nicely In China" label?

Bambu, the reusable/disposable bamboo spoon people, sound like they're trying to think this through. And some toy companies like Il Golfini della Nonna and Zid Zid make a point of aiding the development of the local artisans who make their stuff.

Is global manufacturing hopeless from the start? What if you have five Wal-Mart supercenters within a 100-mile radius, but no organic goatherds selling rattles made from hand-combed, undyed felt?

17 Comments

There are plenty of toy makers and sellers who are thinking about these issues...but not everyone will have access to a shop as close as their neighborhood Walmart. I guess it pays to do some sleuthing on playthings just as many of us do with baby/kid gear. Depending on the flavor of your ideals, a Made in the USA label may be enough.

Thank heavens for the 'net. Here's a good site... where they explain,

"Other standards which we apply to our products include evaluating environmental impacts and workplace and labor issues. We feel that toys produced under conditions that are fair for workers and that has a positive effect on the environment will also carry with them an inherent spirit that is good for our children, and good for their future."

Check out Imagiplay (www.imagiplay.com). They call themselves "makers of environmentally friendly toys with integrity" and they were featured on the Kids episode of "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" on the Sundance Channel. My son doesn't own any of the toys-- yet-- so I can't really vouch for them. But the products and the company seem cool.

Here's an environmentally-conscious wooden toymaker that lives and works in my region:

http://www.spencerwoodentoys.com/

Beautiful stuff.

Haba, maybe? While searching to find if they too are secretly evil, I found this post:

The 2nd comment is interesting....

[actually, the whole thing's interesting. nice find. -ed.]

Anne Claire Petit crocheted toys are made in China -- a fact that she doesn't hide. Instead, she wants her customers to know about the program which she is involved with. Her products are handmade by women who are normally argricultural workers and who would otherwise have no source of income in the off season. This is from her website:

The anne-claire petit brand has an optimistic view of the world. In all aspects. From design to production. Cheerful, colourful and especially - made with love. A great deal of the crochet work is done in Asia. A warm bond has grown with various communities living in the countryside, where the women have passed on their handiwork techniques for many generations. Thanks to the crochet work they do for anne-claire petit accessories, the women are able to generate an income throughout most of the year - something from which the entire village benefits. The women work from home doing the crochet work for the new collections together with their neighbours. This brings about a feeling of security and working together that is expressed in all of anne-claire petit's accessories.


There are little booklets about this attached to most of her products.

Too bad there is always the assumption that goods made in China must be of poor quality and made under unfair conditions -- it does happen all too often.

[on the contrary, I think there's been the assumption that stuff was cheap but fine, and that no one needed to concern themselves with stuff like toxic paint or hazardous, corrupt work conditions because the brand, retailer, govt', or someone else took care of things. In the absence of affirmative information to the contrary, though, it turns out there's been a lot more unwarranted assuming than anyone realized. -ed.]

Plan Toys which makes wooden toys apparently uses renewable rubberwood from Thailand, as does Wonderworld Toys. I bought some stuff from both of them, and they seem to be holding up very well. I like Haba. I have some of the play food, and it definitely has held up. I also like the company Peppa Dolls, which makes fairtrade dolls in India. Think they are a Belgian company and predominantly sold in Europe. Their dolls are made of wool and cotton, and are so much nicer than the plastic crap out there--and so well dressed for a doll. They've got particularly cute dolls for boys--like the Billy.

[I'm pretty sure dolls for boys are called "action figures." Imagiplay also uses rubberwood, which sounds like the low impact hardwood of choice for toymakers. -ed.]

Two cents: We have four or five things by Anne-Claire Petit, none of which say "made in china" anywhere on them. Only "Netherlands". The balls and elephant didn't have any booklet or other tag with the "made in" or content information. I never thought about where they were made. I assumed that the little $30 ball was handmade by a band of Dutch girls who ride their bikes to work every day.

Oh! I almost forgot to shill for Ten Thousand Villages! They're a non-profit fair-trade gift shop, and although their product lineup changes, they often have really cool stuff, and they have a toy section.

Unfortunately, only a small portion of it is sold on their web site -- you'll have to find an actual store. Luckily, you can get one thing I particularly love, the "Painted School Bus & Children" (http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/catalog/product.detail.php?product_id=8123)

It's handmade in Sri Lanka from albizia (!?) wood, and best of all includes sixteen little wooden people very like the traditional Fisher Price people, back when they were awesome simple choking hazards (instead of the current over-characterized trademark culture hazards).

Thanks for the mention Greg. We [zidzid] moved overseas just to be a part of our production chain. I work day in and day out with the team that produces our line. I am very happy with our choice, even when I get homesick every now and then!

I met Anne-Claire Petit over the weekend and she described the programs she has developed in China with her production crew. Hearing her tell her story 'off the record' from one manufacturer to the next was quite inspiring to me. I am very familiar with her products, but as previously mentioned, I have not seen this story placed on her products before. So, it was refreshing to hear it first hand. She said she has a team of 800 women working during busy periods. I was pretty floored by this! It's nice to know that she cares about her product.

Bla Bla is a great company that handknits their items in Peru. They are very dedicated to what they do. www.blablakids.com

Hopefully a better understanding will continue to grow from the general population on where products are made. I feel it makes a big difference.

There are hundreds of conscientious small and medium-sized toymakers around the world--perhaps the problem is exacerbated by increasing demand or a desire to move a product at a lower price.

Many of the toymakers we work with and actively seek out in Germany and elsewhere in Europe can be categorized in one of three ways:

1. Small, family-owned businesses in which the toys are designed and produced in a small workshop by the parents and children;

2. Workshops that provide work for the mentally or physically disabled, often connected to a church or regional social services program;

and

3. Workshops and manufacturers that employ at-home workers (often caregivers or the elderly) to help assemble or paint the toys.

From a safety standpoint, these manufacturers all conform to the standards set by the European community, which prohibits the use of toxic materials (among other things).

The result may be toys that sell at a higher price, but they are also toys that you should feel confident about putting in to the hands of a young child.

What about freecycling toys. Garage Sales, barter fairs, and good old craigs list are good options if you want to find some new to your children toys. Look at your friends and neighbors they might want to recycle their old toys. Pass it along.

I recently shelled out for a set of Uncle Goose blocks from Genius Babies via Amazon. "printed with nontoxic, colored ink. And to avoid destroying nonrenewable forests, they're made of basswood that's cut from industry-owned and managed land in Michigan."

Is two bucks a block a lot? Oh god, yes. But I spend enough time being freaked out about him chewing on who-knows-what from the relatives, at least all I have to worry about with a set of nontoxic blocks is he falls over on one of the corners or gets a splinter.

David beat me to it - I was going to suggest Uncle Goose, as well. I bought for my son a set of the alphabet blocks in Greek, and they're beautiful. I love that the mission of this family-run company is to create "imagination-driven" toys. You can read more about Uncle Goose here: http://www.unclegoose.com/Who.html.

Their website also has a link to Froebel Gifts, which makes those classic wooden building blocks that are so hard to find now.

[also freakin' expensive. Kid-O in NYC has the complete Froebel gift series, as they're called, and they are beautiful but cost a bomb -ed]

Good post, good discussion.

KidBean.com has a good selection of fair labor toys, including the Uncle Goose ones. I like that they focus on toys made in the USA.

I came across this post via a Google search for "Wonderworld Toys". I have been searching forever for a company here in the US that sells Wonderworld Toys- does anybody here know where to get them???

I like three sisters toys and a toy garden for natural toys (both very conscious of lead etc)
http://www.threesisterstoys.com
http://www.atoygarden.com

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