2020 started with an environmental bang (in a good way) for the global toy trade. By far the biggest trend we saw coming out of Spielwarenmesse® 2020 was the environmental theme. Whereas once upon a time we might see one or two calls per hall relating to sustainability, this year (at long last some would argue) we embraced environmental concerns en masse. From bio plastics to sustainable wood and cardboard based products 2020 offered so much in terms of forward progress.
Environmental concerns vs short term survival mode
Unfortunately, as the massive economic hit unfolds from the COVID-19 pandemic, toy companies are in many cases in survival mode whereby anything goes to drive revenues and profits, which can often lead to non-immediate concerns to go out of the window. There is some room for optimism though, because while plastic backlash has muted somewhat due to a more immediate hit to our way of life, it has not gone away. We’re seeing increased demand for those product categories which use sustainable materials both due to consumers still having environmental concerns and due to the immediate need to occupy, entertain and educate children which has lead to a surge in board games made from cardboard and other products like wooden toys.
The fundamental issue though that the toy business is trying to address is a massive over reliance on plastic as the primary material for toy products. Bio plastics made from plant-based materials offer some hope but are more expensive (currently) and do not last quite as long or endure quite as well as plastic at this point. Rome wasn’t built in a day though, and we can feel positive about the commitments from some of the major toy companies to remove unnecessary plastics in packaging. This must be low hanging fruit for all, as card-based materials and some simple packaging structure tweaks can surely minimize the need for plastic packaging.
Can the toy industry borrow the solution from elsewhere?
That still leaves those big chunks of plastic inside the box or pack though. How do we make a fashion doll, action figure, playset or even plush toy for the highly pressurized price points our customers demand without super cheap plastic materials? That has to be a work in progress, and in the end it seems most likely that the solution will not come from the toy industry but instead will come from FMCG or other consumer product categories where volumes are far higher and so therefore are resources, and where the media and consumer focus is highest in terms of abolishing ridiculously wasteful and damaging excess plastic proliferation.
Think of those soft drinks companies whose business relies on selling billions of plastic bottles. These are the companies and the industries who will put pressure on science, supply chains and drive sustainability eventually in terms of raw materials.
The recent history of humankind shows that when the business need is there to make big changes, technology combined with corporate priority will find a way. In the meantime, we can still do minimise unnecessary plastic by simply remembering to ask for it to be removed. When you work with product development and manufacturing teams you can often fall into the rut of doing everything the same way as before, but progress usually comes when somebody moves the goalposts and asks for change. If we do not ask our development teams and our supply chains for these changes, then our retailers and the end consumers will backlash. And therein lies the biggest risk toy companies currently face – consumers won’t tell us 5 years in advance when they decide not to buy any more plastic toys, one Christmas they will just not buy our plastic products, maybe they will buy wooden toys or board games instead, or maybe video games downloaded via the internet. If we don’t take all steps to get ahead of the curve here we risk a major and potentially catastrophic wakeup call – if you think the impact of COVID-19 on the toy business was bad, try dealing with mass global rejection of the primary material in the majority of our products in this industry!
The fundamental drivers for toy play are long since proven and have if anything been amplified by screen time addiction, so the future should be bright, but it would be a mistake for the toy business to rest. Change is coming, either due to innovations we deliver or those we can take advantage of from other industries, plastic is not the future anymore and we need to get on board with that asap to manage the change which is already underway.