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What I said to the world's biggest toy fair about toy sustainability

In February 2023, I spoke at the world's biggest toy fair Spielwarenmesse about toy sustainability. It was a highlight of the past 4.5 years for me.

I shared my story - why / how I started the world's first eco-activist toystore Jiminy and our impact so far - plus:
* Why toys need to change;
* My vision for toys' sustainable future;
* How we get from here to there!

As a disruptor of this industry, I was very encouraged by the progressive, inclusive, industry-leadership mindset at Spielwarenmesse that invited me to speak.

Watch it (you have to log-in) here.

Here's the 1.5-minute teaser:

Here's (roughly!) what I said:

I’m Sharon Keilthy and I’m an environmental activist. My activism is running the world’s first eco toystore, Jiminy Eco Toys, in Ireland. I’m here to share my story, including why toys need to change, my vision for toys’ sustainable future, what I’ve figured out so far about how we get from here to there, and what we all need to do (including you!) to make that happen. Including debunking a lot of common beliefs about sustainable toys.

It was 2018 and my daughter’s 4th birthday was approaching. I went to a very nice Irish toystore to get her a gift. By then I was awake to the plastic problem - the carbon emissions, the trash crisis. I wanted to get her something she’d enjoy and I could feel good about - something plastic-free and made locally in Europe. But there was nothing like that in the store and I came out empty-handed.

I thought: "How can we expect people to choose sustainable, when sustainable isn’t on the toystore shelf? We have to make it easy to do good - by making ‘good’ available! And if not me now, then who when, to change it?"

So I started the toy retailer I wished the others were - offering all types of toys for every age from babies through teenagers - just the ‘eco version’ - meaning strictly no virgin petro-plastic, and made locally in Europe.

I started on a cold, dark November morning in my local park Saturday market, with a table and 20 products, terrified and not knowing what I was doing.

That was 4.5 years ago. Jiminy is now one of Ireland’s largest independent toy retailers. So far we have:

  • Empowered 15,000 customers to choose toys they can feel great about;
  • Replaced EUR 2 million (retail value) of plastic toys with sustainable toys - for our climate that’s like having saved 4,500 mature trees;
  • Brought our message, about why and how to choose sustainable toys, to a mainstream audience, e.g., with a Christmas pop-up in Ireland’s largest department store (Arnotts), features in Ireland’s largest newspaper (Irish Times) and on Ireland’s most-watched TV show (the Late Late Toy Show)!

That’s my story - but let’s look at the case for change in toys:

The toy industry is linear and intensely polluting and wasteful:

  1. A toy’s start-of-life is highly polluting. We are in a climate crisis. Ellen MacArthur estimates our use of plastic contributes 6% of global carbon emissions. Toys is the world’s most plastic-intensive industry, with 90% made from virgin petro-plastic. Most then travel 22,000km to us from China. All emitting so much CO2 we'd have to plant 1 billion trees to absorb it!
  2. A toy’s mid-life is hit-and-miss. The average child under 12 in Ireland receives €450 per year of new toys. How many hours does each get used? Some studies show toys disused within a month.
  3. A toy’s end-of-life is a waste problem for families, local authorities, and charity shops. It's socially-unacceptable to re-gift a used toy. Charity shops often decline soft toy donations. Most toys are mixed-material so not recyclable. And if "recycled", most toys actually get downcycled into park benches etc.

That's the environmental case for change in toys - what about the human case?

Let’s hear what our kids think about all this: 

Our then 9-year-old customer Aoife says, "It's important because plants and animals are dying out. So it's important to use eco-friendly things so nothing gets hurt."

But if we buy a gift to make Aoife happy, and we choose a plastic toy, the very uncomfortable truth is:

  • Our gift is making the plants and animals die out.
  • Our gift is endangering Aoife's planet and future.

...Aoife doesn't want that. We don't want that.

So how do we change that? Let’s look at how my eco toystore Jiminy has worked on the start of a toy’s life and making it climate-neutral - through the lens of debunking some common misconceptions about sustainable toys:

Misconception: sustainable toys are all wooden.

Our eco toys are only 28% wooden. Our wooden toys are all sustainable wood, and the rest are bioplastic, recycled plastic, recycled cardboard, recycled wood, organic cotton, beeswax.

Here's why we stock those materials - low carbon footprint, use-up waste (slide showing carbon footprint of different materials - virgin petro PE, recycled PE, bio PE, wood, cardboard

Here are the brands we stock:


And I want to celebrate sustainable innovations by toy makers too big to sell to us (we've tried to buy these but not been able to so far!)

Misconception: it’s important a toy be recyclable.

No - a durable toy we can expect to be used for 25 years - recycling technology and systems will be entirely different then. So “recyclable” - meaning “can in theory be recycled if put into the right waste stream” is a plus, but not at all as important as “already-recycled” - meaning “already made by using-up waste”.

Misconception: it’s important a toy be biodegradable.

No - why would we want toys to biodegrade? What if it gets left in the bathtub or in the garden or even just on the windowsill? And in general recycling is usually better than biodegrading. Take a sheet of used paper - it takes much less energy and resources to recycle it into a new paper, than to biodegrade it into soil, grow a new tree to make the new paper. So once we have the toy, first let's keep it in use as long as possible, then let's recycle it.

Misconception: sustainable toys are all beige.

We are not a "it looks Scandinavian chic so it must be sustainable" toystore. They're full of colour, that's what kids want.

Misconception: sustainable toys are not all really expensive.

We cater to all but the smallest budgets and compare favourably to a lot of unsustainable mainstream toys.

Misconception: it’s the transport from far away that’s the problem.

Our eco toys are made in Europe, for minimal toy-miles. But let me ask you a question: for a typical made-in-China virgin petro-plastic toy, which of these is 90% of its carbon footprint?

  1. Transporting it 22,000km by sea from China to Europe? Or
  2. Making it from virgin petro-plastic?

Most people choose 1 (transport), but in fact it's 2 (plastic). What's driving the climate crisis is petroleum. The science is very clear but sometimes it's good to remind ourselves of that.

So why do we focus on made-in-Europe toys? Because we're perfectionists and saving 90% of the carbon footprint by avoiding the virgin petro-plastic isn't enough for us - we want the whole 100%.

Misconception: sustainability is about packaging.

Packing is the least important part of a toy's sustainability. What % of the overall weight of the toy is the packaging? 2% 5% Well that's also its share of the toy's environmental impact. So why have we the toy industry been talking about sustainable packaging for 10 years now, but not about the actual toy's climate footprint or trash footprint?

  • Because packaging is easier
  • Because there's been more legislation affecting packaging, focused really more on food packaging

(If we are working on the sustainability of a toy's packaging, we need to consider its climate and trash footprints, see chart below).

Let’s have a look at making toys more circular.

Right now:

  • Over 1 billion Barbies have been sold since her creation. There are only 200 million children in the developed world (5 Barbies each if we stop producing new toys now) or 2.2 billion children in the whole world (1 Barbie for every 2 kids if we stop producing now).
  • There are some cool toy reuse initiatives: Rejoue in France collect used toys, check clean and package them and sell in a bright mainstream mall store. Whirli is a courier-enabled toy library. But they have limitations - Rejoue’s economics only work because it’s a social enterprise and gets Government funding for all its labour, and Whirli went bankrupt last year. So toy reuse economics are hard.
  • Right now if someone gets a preloved Barbie - from Rejoue, from a charity shop, from friends or family, from Freecycle - Mattel loses a sale. How can we redesign this such that our toy makers are not reliant on the linear economy but have a role and earn a living from the circular economy?
  • Examples from other industries might be: FairPhone - mobile phones designed for repair. And Zalando a German clothing retailer who sells its own clothes preloved as well as new.

PS: Check out this Circular Economy for Toys training course (not affiliated, just think it's cool someone is doing this.)

And what about toy recycling?

This is the phase of a toy's life I've done least work on so I'll just say, there are some great initiatives like Wastebuster and the Hasbro Toy Recycling Programme which take used toys and send them to be downcycled into lower-value products like park benches, but they're still small in scale.

Let's step into the sustainable future of toys for a moment, to see how it feels

It's 10 years from now. It's a Saturday and you need a gift for a child in your life. You go to a big mainstream toystore and as you walk through the sliding doors, you see signs for the toy repair service, the spare parts section, and toys for rent. But you walk past those to the construction toys aisle and the soft toys aisle. You can't help but notice that every toy on every shelf is made from recycled plastic or bioplastic or wood or cardboard. There are even refurbished "proudly preloved" toys in a nice giftable box with a guarantee. And you RELAX and choose the toy you know the child will love the most, knowing that whichever you buy, your gift will be protecting that child's planet and future, not the opposite.

So how do we get from here to there?

I feel the big opportunity for us in toys is collaboration.

So many of the challenges I hear from toy makers could be much more easily solved together, e.g.:

  • Finding toy-safe recycled plastic in the right order quantities, right lead times, at the right price;
  • Overcoming the technical challenges of switching from virgin petro-plastic to recycled or bio-plastic - right now each toy maker is investing in this individually, and the resulting knowledge is proprietary and competitive - leaving the medium and small makers unable to make these improvements as they can't afford the research. Imagine this knowledge was instead shared by the whole industry, so we could all move ahead to sustainability as quickly as possible!
  • Right now doing the right thing is more expensive. It's more expensive to buy plastic pellets made from waste, than to buy virgin pellets made by drilling in the North Sea and building expensive platforms, pipelines, etc. This makes no sense and is a result of legislation / tax regimes. We could work together to help Governments fix this - so that doing the right thing becomes the cheaper option - that's where we need to get to.

The construction industry has the World Green Building Council - a "local-regional-global action network accelerating sustainability in the built environment". It has an agreed, fact-based case for change, vision for the future, and strategy to get from here to there. Download the executive summary here.

What's most beautiful about this is the radical collaboration of big construction companies to create it together. Imagine we had this in toys.

I'd love to figure out how to instigate this - if you have connections or ideas let me know!

Opportunities for you to learn more and do more:

  • bio!TOY Conference 2023, March 21-22 - register here.
  • Women in Toys Sustainability Learning Community - register here if you're a WiT member, otherwise let me know and I'll add you separately - non-women also welcome!

I also want to celebrate:

I am not judging you

Please know: I am not judging you or anyone for what has happened up to now. When plastic was first used in toys, no-one knew about climate change and plastic's role in driving it.

But our children will judge us on one question:

What did you do, once you knew?

And now we all know.

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