If you can't trust toys to be safe, what can you trust? Parents everywhere want to know the answer to this after a recent wave of toy recalls, from Thomas the Tank Engine to Elmo. Millions of toys have been recalled after testing revealed high levels of lead, and all were made in China.
Though the vast majority of Chinese products, toys included, are safe, consumers are nevertheless looking for alternatives to Chinese toys. They want items that are safe, nontoxic, environmentally friendly, artisan-made, organic—the opposite of cheap plastic toys made by giant corporations. And, in many cases, they're willing to pay a premium for peace of mind.
"As a result of the giant mess in China, a marketing niche is available for handmade, quality toys," says Ed Mierzwinski, federal consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, based in Washington, D.C., which runs the Web site toysafety.net. "Natural foods stores aren't the lowest-cost stores, but they do well because customers want quality, they want local, they want organic." What holds true for foods, Mierzwinski says, may hold true for toys as well.
"Everybody is scrambling to find out what's safe and who they can trust," says Barbara Aimes, president of ImagiPLAY, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that specializes in toys made of sustainable woods and bamboo. "It's difficult for the consumers."
She sees China as the victim as much as the culprit. "We have such an appetite for inexpensive things," she says. Price pressures from consumers, shareholders and giant retailers all have an effect on toy safety. "When you squeeze the suppliers like that, they take shortcuts," Aimes says.
Her company's toys are manufactured in China, but with careful oversight. "We take great pains to ensure that everything is safe," she says. "We visit the factories, interview the workers and use only small family-owned businesses. When you pay people well and treat them well, you'll be rewarded."
"There's a lot of China-bashing going on, but just because it isn't made in China doesn't mean it's safe," Mierzwinski says. "Companies have stretched their supply lines to the lowest-cost producers because of pressure from big retailers. Wal-Mart wants low prices. Wal-Mart doesn't care that the Consumer Product Safety Council wants safe toys."
Retailers should be sure to provide plenty of information to customers who are uneasy about products from China. It's easier for a small manufacturer to maintain oversight, Aimes says. For example, she has each batch of paint tested, but a particular color will last more than a year before a new batch needs to be formulated.
Another company doing business the right way in China is MiYim Simply Organic plush toys, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. The company produces a line of stuffed toys using organic cotton and natural plant-based dyes.
"We have our own boutique factory for organic toys in Shanghai," says Sam Hahn, MiYim's managing director. "The toys are all hand-stuffed, and we provide lint-free rooms for workers. Because the fabric is naturally dyed, we also use a UV-sterilization system for safety before packaging."
MiYim is on the large end of the boutique toy business, employing several hundred workers. On the small end are businesses like Blabla, an Atlanta-based company selling knit clothes, dolls and toys entirely handmade by Peruvian cooperatives. "Compared to Mattel, we're like plankton," says Joseph Strong, general manager. "They do 10 billion a year; we do 3 million. We just moved out of a garage into proper offices."
"We pay top dollar to our [supplier] co-ops and never negotiate prices, so we have a lower margin than most companies," says Blabla co-founder Susan Pritchett. "Everything is handpicked, which is why our cotton is so soft." Handpicking gets only the cottony fibers, whereas machine picking ends up getting some stem and other plant material as well. "We're partially organic, and our supplier is currently converting his cotton fields," she adds.
The company has a retail store, but it sells primarily wholesale to specialty boutiques and museum stores.
Green Toys is a new company based in San Francisco with a decidedly environmental bent that will appeal to naturals consumers. Its products, slated to launch in early 2008, are made entirely of corn-based bioplastics. They include a tea set, a sand-play set, a cookware set and an indoor gardening set with organic soil and seeds.
"We hired a product-design firm that has done work for Apple and other tech companies," says Laurie Hyman, company co-founder. "The products had to be cool and they had to be fun, because if they're not fun, kids won't care what they're made of."
Green Toys is also using a new biodegradable colorant in its products. In addition, the toys are produced in the United States to reduce transportation costs, and are sold in recycled packaging. "We're not trying to compete against a Wal-Mart $1.99 sand-play kit," Hyman says. "That said, the prices are fairly competitive, given what you're getting."
It's important that retailers do research before deciding what products to stock. For example, many consumers perceive wood toys as automatically natural—or at least they did until Thomas the Tank Engine was recalled for lead paint. Paints, binders and processing chemicals can all render a toy unsafe, regardless of its primary ingredients. "There are no certification standards for natural toys," Mierzwinski says. "You could get a wood toy made of pressure-treated lumber [treated with chemical preservatives], and you certainly don't want a kid chewing on that."
Most small manufacturers are happy to answer retailers' questions about sourcing, manufacturing and raw materials. With a little research, retailers can offer concerned consumers the products that leave parents reassured and children happy.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p. 16,18