Diversity in (eco) toys
We launched our first soft eco-friendly toys in April 2020 - the adorable Rubens Barn Mini EcoBuds, which come in 2 skin tones (dark, and light). We posted a video to social media talking about these diverse dolls, and received this message from a follower:
"Love these - always a struggle to find eco friendly toys that are diverse!...[My younger boy] pointed to the [dark-skinned] one you are holding and asked if that was a doll of him 😂."
Why kids' toys should represent humanity's diversity
Studies have shown it’s important for children to see characters who look and sound like them in what they watch, read, and play with (1). Seeing people like you builds your confidence - especially if they are awesome characters you admire; not seeing them damages it.
Taking just gender diversity, my daughter is 6 and I am tuned-in to how she experiences women's roles in the world. 'Pathetic princess saved by a prince she then marries' - these stories have come into our home and gone into the recycling - no child should read them. I seek-out brave, strong, clever female characters in what we watch, read, and play together - we love Jane Goodall, Elsa and Anna. Producers of kids' content and toys are improving - Thomas the Tank Engine just introduced a raft of female trains! But in many of her cartoons and comics, females are still a token afterthought - Nye in LEGO Ninjago, or Skye in Paw Patrol.
It's also important children see characters who are different to them. It's not enough that they hear us say, 'Everyone is different, and different is good', if that's contradicted by their toys, books, cartoons, and/or real life.
When my daughter was 4, I realised all her dolls were female and pale-skinned, with no visible disabilities! That's representative of my daughter, not of our society!
- Half our society is male (are your kid's toys half male, half female?);
- 5% of people in Ireland, 15% in the UK, and 4% across Europe have more diverse ethnicities and skin tones;
- 15% of people have some form of disability (visible or not).
So, our kids' toys should represent human diversity - in fact, they should over-represent groups of people still struggling for inclusion and equity. We need every kid to expect - and be willing to fight for - diversity, inclusion and equity when they run the world (which will be soon).
Incidentally, it's not just about doing the right thing: businesses whose executive teams are diverse in gender and ethnicity, for example, are more likely to be very successful (2). I'm sure the same is true of governments, school committees, sports clubs...everything, everywhere..
What's Jiminy Eco Toys doing to help?
We are an activist toy company, focused on the environment. We ruthlessly stock toys and books that are low-carbon and low-waste, and that also encourage kids to love our planet (so that when they grow up, they'll protect it).
But it should also be a given that we promote diversity, inclusion and equity - and definitely not normalise exclusion, however unwittingly. The horror of what's been happening in the US spurred me to take a hard look at whether we actually do. Here's what I found.
The toys themselves
We stock toys from about 30 producers. 25 don't feature humans in their toys - they are stacking blocks, tractors, bubbles, dinosaur puzzles. 4 do feature humans:
|Producer / brand||Diverse genders?||Diverse ethnicities?||People with disabilities?|
|Rubens Barn Mini EcoBud dolls||✔||✔||N/A|
|Playpress flatpacked toys||✔||✔||✔|
|Coco d'en Haut shadow theatres||✔||N/A||N/A|
|Marbushka board games||✔||x||x|
All 4 feature male and female characters equally across the toys we stock, and 3 out of 4 do this across all their toys. One (Marbushka) doesn't - we just don't stock their all-male-character racing-car board game, their 'Colouring Book for Girls', or their 'Colouring Book for Boys'. We've told them we wish those products were gender-inclusive, but they weren't really interested.
2 out of 4 brands feature more than one ethnicity, or at least more than one skin colour. One can't - they are shadow theatres and shadows don't have skin colour. But 1 brand (Marbushka) features almost exclusively pale-skinned human characters.
Mabushka has 15 board and memory games featuring 61 human protagonists, and 58 of those humans are white. In fact 13 of the games (and by coincidence all the ones we stock) only feature white-skinned humans.
The producer has declined to work with us to fix this. They see the games as works of art (we agree) so don't feel responsible that kids see themselves, and people different to themselves, in the games (we disagree).
That we ever stocked these games is my fault. We were seeking toys that were eco, beautiful, and fun. I was instinctively tuned-in to gender balance. But I didn't notice that they only featured 1 ethnicity.
So we have cancelled our UK and Ireland exclusive distribution agreement with them. And we will discontinue their games that feature humans. They have refused to take-back the stock we have, so we will reluctantly continue selling them until they are gone (other suggestions welcome) - they are discounted to clear.
We will continue their games featuring only animals, stay in touch, and continue to encourage them to make their games diversity-positive. We believe this is more likely to help them change than cutting ties completely.
Only 1 out of 4 brands features a positive character with a visible disability - the Playpress Space Ranger wears an eye patch. Playpress say they plan to include more characters with visible disabilities in future sets.
And then there's the lifestyle photos
Our producers are all small, most are very small and family-run. Only 13 out of 30 produce 'lifestyle photos' - images of children playing with their toys that we use on our website and social media. All include gender-diverse kids - but only 4 ethnically-diverse kids. So we've written to the other 9 to ask, how they plan to fix this.
Tiny businesses have tiny photography budgets and often DIY with their own kids or friends' kids. And in some countries in Europe, the population is 98% or even 99% white. So it's understandable that the lifestyle photos only include white kids...understandable but not good enough.
Responses from our producers so far:
- "In our photos we have our kids [and we are white so they are white]. And I know that it will be hard to believe but Poland is 98% white so we don't have any friends with different cultural roots to simply ask them to work with us" [My response: we'll figure something out and maybe have photos taken by a fan in another country etc]
- "I used a stock photo of kids' hands and it's my bad they are all white, it's laziness on my part but that's no excuse. I've been trying to find similar photos of different ethnicities but they don't seem to exist on the stock photo websites. It's sad and I guess a sign of the ingrained problems in society that I realise I have perpetuated with only using white hands on our products." [My response: this is feedback the stock photo websites need to hear, please write to them.] [...A few weeks later:] "I just wanted to let you know we have changed the hands on some of the photos to be more inclusive. Thank you for prompting this positive change."
We've just tuned-in to this aspect of our eco-toy collection, so check-back with us in a month or two, we'll update this blog as we make progress. We'll be working to ensure that every child recognises themselves - and others who are different to them - in our images, and in our toys.
2 Source: Diversity Wins: How inclusion matters (McKinsey & Co, 2020)