How important are environmental concerns during a pandemic?
The question then is the extent to which environmental matters are still towards the top of consumer concerns and considerations in such a difficult and life altering situation, and the degree to which toy companies will advance their green agenda when facing so many other challenges resulting from the pandemic.
The first observation we can make is that demand for toys and games has been strong throughout 2020, regardless of or perhaps because of, the pandemic situation. Toy sales are up in most major markets as parents have struggled to manage locked down children with too much time on their hands and with too much access to screen time. One major element of increased demand has been the increase in sales of parentally approved items such as games and puzzles, which are in themselves mostly bio degradable and therefore seen as more responsible purchases from an environmental perspective (regardless of how the cardboard is sourced or how polluting the inks and other chemical elements may or may not be).
We can also note that toy company environmental initiatives have mostly stayed on the to do list despite the difficult business climate around the world. The best thing about this is that many of these initiatives address the more brainless environmental infractions such as over use of plastic ties and cellophane on products, when a very small degree of thought, planning and lateral thinking can make a big difference and significantly decrease environmental footprint. This type of casual wanton plastic waste is what tends to infuriate consumers who are green minded the most. If the toy itself has clear play value, and is clearly going to last longer because it is made of hard plastic, then it is more acceptable to many more people than wanton mindless waste. In the same way as needless plastic bag proliferation became a major action point for most grocery retailers in most countries due to consumer backlash. So the toy business had to adapt, too, and change to deal with what is broadly seen as unnecessary plastic waste.
Green as a brand extension strategy
Despite the ravages of COVID 19, one major emerging trend for big toy companies with a portfolio of ever green classic brands is green as a brand extension strategy. For example one of 2020’s major PR pushes has been Mattel’s promotion of a new iteration of their classic card game UNO. In the Nothin‘ But Paper edition, there is no plastic and only recyclable card. The benefit of this strategy on a classic game is that it can become hard to keep finding a motivating marketing and PR message each year on products which have been around for a long time. Having a green theme or a green brand extension offers three major benefits therefore – firstly, it allows a company to improve environmental footprint, then it allows for a strong marketing message which should resonate with large numbers of consumers and finally it even offers new commercial opportunities.
Now is the time for easy wins
For now, we remain in the phase of easy wins. To remove needless plastic waste is one thing, but the bigger challenge comes for toys which are primarily or entirely made from plastic materials. There has definitely never been more of a push globally on the need to find greener alternatives to oil based plastics. We tend to look at consumer behaviours and attitudes in isolation as they relate to our industry, but the real advancements in such materials will come about due to the demands of larger volume industries like FMCG (fast moving consumer goods). Plant based ‘plastic‘ materials are here already and are only going to get better and cheaper. The toy business needs to keep a close eye on these developments because once ‘bio-plastics‘ become the norm in other industries parents and children will demand they become standard in the toy business, too.
Lego’s major commitment to making their iconic bricks from sustainable sources by 2030 is evidence of a company looking to get ahead of the curve. For those brands who stay behind the consumer curve on this major issue, expect consumer backlash via social media and all the usual channels. But perhaps more dangerously for toy companies who ignore the growing anti-plastic sentiments of children and their parents, the risk is of rejection and unsold products sat on shelves needing costly markdown funding to clear. Predicting consumer behaviour is very difficult - needless to say, sometimes people have strong opinions verbally but their actions go in a different direction, in this case though consumer opinion and actions seem to be co-aligning over time towards a massive reduction in plastic usage and needless environmental waste and negative impact. Therefore, the winning strategy for toy companies going forward looks likely to be to emulate the bigger companies and piggy back new materials and sustainable sources as they become available.