Think about the volume of toys manufactured each year. Millions upon millions of games, dolls, trinkets and other baubles are churned out for the entertainment of children around the world. As the titans that make them start considering their complete environmental footprints, they are making big strides in protecting the planet's natural resources, albeit by disparate approaches.
Here's an introduction to the steps that three of the biggest names in the toy business are taking toward sustainability.
Hasbro raises the bar
Hasbro recently announced new environmental sustainability goals to minimize waste, improve energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and conserve water at its owned and operated facilities around the world. Using 2012 numbers as a baseline, by 2020 Hasbro plans to reduce waste to landfill by 50 percent, energy consumption by 25 percent, GHG emissions by 20 percent and water consumption by 15 percent.
The new goals are third-generation objectives and build on sustainability commitments Hasbro set in 2002 and 2008. Between 2008 and 2012, the company says, it reduced non-hazardous waste by 40 percent, energy consumption by 19 percent, GHG emissions by 32 percent and water consumption by 31 percent.
Hasbro is also working to reduce its packaging material, eliminate polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from packaging, increase recycled content and source paper responsibly. For these efforts, the company recently was awarded an Environmental Merit Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Last year Hasbro vowed to reduce materials used in product packaging for many of its popular global brands. For example, the company overhauled its Play-Doh can design, switched to paperless labels printed directly on the can, added a tapered edge more conducive for consumer reuse and put recycling symbols on the can and lid. While these might seem like small changes, in 2010 Hasbro cranked out more than 284 million cans of the classic modeling compound, so even minor tweaks have the potential for global impacts.
This year the company eliminated PVC from new product packaging and says it's on track to nix it from all packaging by the end of this year. It also exceeded its 2011 goal to derive at least 75 percent of paper and board packaging from recycled material or from sources that practice sustainable forest management. By 2015, Hasbro plans to increase that number to 90 percent.
Not only is Hasbro phasing out PVCs, it also did away with the plastic bags in which game instructions were wrapped, removing 800,000 pounds of material worldwide from its waste stream. In 2010 Hasbro also replaced wire ties with ones made from paper rattan or bamboo, effectively eradicating 34,000 miles worth of wire ties.
All of Hasbro's efforts have earned it the top spot on the Climate Counts Scorecard for four years in a row. Currently the non-profit gives Hasbro a 73 on a scale from 0 to 100 for doing things such as measuring its climate footprint, reducing its impact on global warming, supporting climate legislation and publicly disclosing its climate actions. Hasbro also recently was named the Toy Industry Reporting Leader for the second year in a row by the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project (PDF).
Lego goes after waste and wind
Hasbro certainly isn't the only toy maker making sustainable changes. Lego has worked for decades to eliminate PVC as well as phthalates from its toys, all of which no longer contain these substances. So while Hasbro gets props for working to remove PVC from its packaging, Lego actually has removed it from its products, something Hasbro has not committed to doing, although it is looking into alternative materials.
This year Lego is introducing a new series of smaller packaging boxes. The Danish company expects the change to reduce its annual consumption of cardboard by about 4,000 tons. Next year the cardboard used in the new boxes will carry FSC certification, meaning the Forest Stewardship Council guarantees it came from sustainable forests.
Over the next few years Lego's parent company, Kirkbi, is investing $547 million to build a wind farm off the coast of Germany. Lego and Kirkbi will control 32 percent of the Borkum Riffgrund wind farm, which amount to one of Germany's largest with 77 turbines when finished in 2015. By 2020, the company will contribute to the world at least the same amount of sustainable energy as the company consumes.
Lego says it has verified that every substance used in its products -- more than 2,000 raw materials -- comply with the European Union Toy Safety Directive, which imparts strict limits on what kinds of materials can be used in toys.
Regarding waste, the company's approach is first to reduce the amount of waste it generates, and then reuse any waste material where possible, recycling almost everything that is left, said Morten Vestberg, sustainability communication manager for Lego.
"Today we recycle about 90 percent of our waste, and with zero waste as our long-term ambition we will continue to make progress on this agenda," he said.
It's also worth mentioning that Lego is one of the top 10 brands to land on the Reputation Institute's 2012 Global Corporate Social Responsibility Reputation list.
Mattel plays with packaging
Like Hasbro, Mattel has tackled the problem of non-recyclable wire twist ties, eliminating more than 90 percent of them, about 363 tons worth. Now the company mostly uses paper strings, nylon fasteners, die-cut paper board and key-lock fasteners.
The company has done some playing around with greener packaging options. For instance, in 2010, Mattel's Hot Wheels factory in Malaysia began using local sources and 100 percent compostable residual sugar cane fiber as an alternative packaging material for the plastic insert tray of the Hot Wheels 9- and 10-pack car assortments. A year later, it conducted a pilot in which it produced more than 1 million recycled-PET (R-PET) Barbie doll hairbrushes because the material is considered to be more sustainable than other plastics. The company calls the pilot a "learning opportunity," even though there are supply chain constraints for R-PET.
While these trials are interesting, they haven't convinced the company to move away from PVC. Whereas Hasbro and Lego are working to use less or no PVC, Mattel generally is not. "Our evaluations to date of alternative plastics have not identified a material that is able to meet all of Mattel's quality, safety, aesthetic, supply-chain and cost requirements, while at the same time exhibiting improved environmental attributes," the company told GreenBiz.
"Mattel established a sustainability target to improve our packaging material efficiency by 5 percent by 2015. Brands across the business have identified opportunities to reduce the amount of packaging materials used," a Mattel spokesperson told me via email.
As for the environmental impacts of its operations, Mattel designated 2008 as the baseline year in terms of tracking Sustainable Performance Indicators. Since then -- looking at normalized metrics that account for fluctuations in business -- the company has reduced its energy consumption by 33 percent, CO2 emissions by 38 percent, water consumption by 54 percent, volatile organic compound emissions by nearly 70 percent, non-hazardous waste generation by 30 percent and hazardous waste generation by 16 percent.
Another way Mattel has improved its environmental record is with how it responded to a 2011 global Greenpeace campaign in which the environmental group claimed Mattel's packaging for its popular Barbie and Ken dolls used pulp sourced from Asia Pulp & Paper, a Singapore company blamed for clear-cutting Indonesian rain forest.
"Following the public pressure of our campaign, Mattel canceled its contracts with Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), who were complicit in rainforest destruction, and instructed its suppliers to avoid wood fiber from controversial sources, including companies 'that are known to be involved in deforestation,'" Kat Clark, Greenpeace USA media officer, said. "Our campaign against Mattel was aimed in part at putting pressure on its supplier Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the world's largest pulp and paper companies. Contract cancellations by companies such as Mattel contributed to APP announcing a potential game-changing Forest Conservation Policy earlier this year."
Toy block image by hxdbzxy via Shutterstock.com