Toying with ethics
In an extended report Sarah Irving looks at some of the companies selling
toys to Britain's kids, whilst Ed Mayo and Agues Nairn look at the commercialisation
On the one hand, toys are retail items like many others covered in Ethical
Consumer. Their manufacture raises environmental and workers rights issues,
and the companies which make them are involved in areas like aviation, arms
investments and political lobbying. On the other hand, toys and the way theyre
sold also have a powerful influence on children and the way they view their
relationships, sexuality and appearance.
The good news is that, despite at least one Ethical Consumer Best Buy toy company
falling victim to the recession, there is a larger and more diverse range of
ethical toys than ever before. The bad news is that, with competition for Christmas
spending fierce, the marketing tactics used by toy companies seem to be getting
dirtier and dirtier.
What are they hiding?
Ethical Consumer has asked the companies it covers to supply information on
their environmental reporting for many years. It allows us to evaluate their
progress in these areas, but it also helps to assess their commitment to transparency
and openness about their operations. As far as were concerned, you
the consumer have a right to know how companies spend the money you give
The toy sector has a truly terrible record in this department. Many of the
main companies covered in this report have no environmental policy or reports.
Others have minimal statements expressing their commitment to hazardous chemical
and waste management schemes which they are actually obliged to comply with
by EU law a cynical portrayal of their obligations as progress. Given
the advanced state of reporting in other sectors, such as cars and supermarkets,
there is absolutely no excuse for this.
Ethical Consumer fully acknowledges that reporting and policies arent
the be-all and end-all. Many companies have great policies but fail to implement
them. But at least they can be held to account against those.
Its not as if the toy industry has such a clean environmental record.
For years it resisted the efforts of environmental and health campaigners to
have restrictions placed on the use of PVC and phthalates, substances which
at high doses have been shown to cause hormone changes and birth defects.1 Unwillingly
the toy industry has submitted to an EU ban on phthalates in products aimed
at the under threes, although companies like Hasbro still defend their use in
toys designed for older children, saying:
With respect to toys and childcare items, Hasbro has carefully considered
the science... and firmly believes that toys and childcare articles made from
PVC and softened with phthalates pose no health risk to children. Nevertheless,
Hasbros toys and childcare items are designed to comply with all applicable
laws and regulations, including the European Union Phthalate Directive.
The CORE coalition of environmental and human rights NGOs argues that, with
examples like phthalate use in mind, regulation is the only answer. Companies
should not be free to choose whether or not they reveal their environmental
policies or keep problem chemicals on the market, and legal compulsion is the
only force that will make companies sit up and take notice. And, says CORE,
company directors shouldnt only be forced to be more transparent and accountable
within their corporate settings, but there should also be better access
to justice for victims of corporate abuse.(2)
Work and play
As with sectors such as clothing and shoes, the vast majority of toys
over 80% are made in China, with all the attendant workers rights
issues raised by this.
Many of the companies in this report, including Brio, Flair Leisure, James Galt,
Giochi Preziosi, Hasbro, Mattel, Playmobil, Simba-Dickie, Tomy and Vivid Imaginations,
have signed up to the International Council of Toy Industries CARE Foundations
Code of Business Practices. This is supposed to improve labour conditions in
toy factories by monitoring them against a series of labour rights standards
in areas such as forced and child labour, discrimination, working hours and
overtime, fair wages and health & safety.
The ICTI CARE scheme certainly represents a significant resource in the struggle
against labour exploitation. Its website features a database of factories
currently over 2,000 which have engaged with it, listing whether they
have registered with the scheme, been certified as complying with its conditions,
or had their registration terminated. The accompanying Date Certain scheme lists
buyer companies including some of the brands in this report which
have committed to buy only from factories that are in the ICTI CARE Process
and either have a Seal of Compliance or have completed the first audit and have
agreed to a Corrective Action Plan to address the identified violations, if
So far, so good
The main problem Ethical Consumer has identified with this program is that
the actual code of practice which the factories in the CARE scheme are audited
against is severely lacking when compared with the demands of labour rights
In particular, the ICTI code:
specifies that working hours per week, wages and overtime pay practices
comply with the standards set by law or, in the absence of a law, address humane,
safe and productive working conditions, leaving big loopholes in the definition
of what constitutes humane or productive. To receive
a best rating, Ethical Consumer asks that companies specify a maximum working
week of 48 hours plus up to 12 hours properly paid overtime, and that rates
of pay address the minimum needed for a decent living, including education of
workers children and a small surplus, rather than simply following often
pitifully inadequate legal minimum wages.
allows a significant loophole in its bar on forced or prison labour,
in that it states that: Many countries recognize that prison labor is
essential to the rehabilitation process. This provision prohibits the exportation
of prison-made goods to countries that prohibit or restrict the importation
of such goods. But it does not define the conditions under which using
prison labour is (or is not) acceptable.
In addition to this, like many voluntary industry monitoring or reporting schemes,
ICTI CARE seems only to publish limited information on non-compliance with its
Code, as its operations are largely dependent on companies seeing it as a friendly
Some of the companies in this report have apparently responded to this by having
their own codes and reporting, either like Mattel in addition
to ICTI CARE membership, or instead of it. Mothercare, for instance, appears
to have made huge strides in this respect. From being slated by Labour Behind
the Label in 2007 as deserving: the most severe criticism and consumer
scepticism for its failure to engage with NGOs on labour rights or to
publish information on its policies and practices, it has gained a high
middle rating for its policy in this report, with a fairly good code,
lacking only the names of the independent monitors it says it uses for its factories,
and moving ahead of many companies which do name their monitors by instituting
mechanisms for talking to NGOs on the ground in India and China.(3)
In 2007 the toy industry across Europe and the USA was hit by massive product
recalls after high levels of lead were found in paint on some toys made in China.
Most of the big companies lost millions, and some, including Mattel, were later
hit with multi-million-dollar fines over their failure to check the safety of
Lead hasnt been the only worrying substance in toys manufactured in China.
Also in 2007, Character Group, Giochi Preziosi and Hasbro were amongst companies
which had to hurriedly withdraw small toys which contained a chemical similar
to date-rape drugs which could cause unconsciousness, respiratory depression
or seizures if ingested.(5)
Understandably, the recalls caused panic amongst many parents and tensions
between governments concerned, on the one hand, with showing their electorates
that they were acting to protect them, and on the other, with not entangling
themselves in litigiously disastrous infringements of free trade regulations.
The updated EU Toy Safety Directive was approved in late 2008 and will come
into force in 2011. The EU claims it will give greater protection through tighter
regulations on chemical content, age labelling and dangers such as small parts.
European consumer groups, however, are not completely happy with the legislation
which, they claim, favours industry concerns over consumer safety. According
to the Europe-wide consumer group BEUC, the regulations still permit many
dangerous chemicals, such as carcinogenic substances, allergenic fragrances
and hormonal disrupting chemicals, and toy companies are allowed to check
their own imports instead of subjecting them to third-party scrutiny.(6)
One of the unintended side effects of the panic was the growth of information
on China-free toys and the promotion of toy industries closer to
home. Playmobil, Lego and Ravensburger all benefited from these, as all of them
manufacture the vast majority of their products in European countries. And for
consumers trying to make ethical choices, such listings provide an extra layer
of information about product sourcing. European manufacture is no clear guarantee
of good workers rights conditions, but more transparency is always welcome.
2006 saw the demise of Action Man, probably the best-known male doll alongside
the US GI Joe. But in 2009 Character Group introduced a British-themed HM Armed
Forces range of figures and model military fighting vehicles. The range attracted
controversy because the Ministry of Defence was involved in developing the toy
and was even receiving a cut of the profits, raising suspicions that this was
a marketing exercise for the UKs armed forces, whose appeal had received
a major blow from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan (until the recession
sent thousands of jobless young men to recruiting offices).(7) Reactions to
the range also noted that the original baddie was an al-Qaeda figure,
while all but one of the goodies were white; this has since been
changed, with the villain now switched to a generic mercenary in grey fatigues.(9)
Anti-military campaigners and pacifists have always been sceptical about soldier
toys. Do they encourage violent tendencies or simply facilitate types of play
which would happen anyway? At what point does providing accurate depictions
become promoting military actions and militaristic values?
The Climate Counts website uses a 0-to-100 point scale and 22 criteria to determine
if companies have:
measured their carbon footprint
reduced their impact on global warming
supported (or suggested intent to block) progressive climate legislation
publicly disclosed their climate actions clearly and comprehensively
Of the toy companies covered in this section of our report, Climate Counts
have assessed four, one of which scored zero out of a possible 100 points (the
higher the better). The highest mark was Hasbro but even it scored just
40 out of 100. Toy companies clearly have a long way to go in addressing their
climate change impacts...
JAKKS Pacific 0(distributed in the UK by Vivid Imaginations)
Do we need toys at all?
Scepticism about the octopus-like marketing of the toy industry has led to
an increasing number of parents thinking about whether they want their kids
around toys at all. Full-time toy-free living might be the luxury of the affluent
home educator, but how many parents have seen their children open an expensive
gift on Christmas morning, only to spend the day enthralled by the box it came
Journalist Liz Hollis suggested list for the essential toy cupboard
stresses that whats important about a toy is not what it is, but what
a child might find to do with it.(20) The author of this report, barred from
watching ITV by a mother who didnt want subjecting to pester power
influenced by adverts, has many happy memories of building space stations, dolls
houses and science kits from the Bits Box, a large box in the kitchen
into which went every used egg-box, yogurt carton, sheet of bubble wrap and
bit of string that found its way into the house.
For parents intimidated by the prospect of having to invent toys
from scrap and convinced of their own lack of creativity, there is a growing
range of books available which suggest ways of recycling rubbish into creative
playtimes. The Five Mile Press range, available from Natural Collection, is
a great resource, as is the Development
Education Project online bookstore. Natural Collection and independent record
stores also stock the Putumayo range of sing-along CDs designed for children,
introducing them to the music of different world regions through age-appropriate
For families lucky enough to have big gardens or who are involved in community
or local authority play schemes, the Forestry Commission also produces a practical
guide on using natural materials to build play areas which stimulate the
imagination and sense of adventure and challenge a sedentary, obesity-encouraging
play culture of games consoles. It can be downloaded from here.
The dilemma for parents is, of course, in deciding how far they want to go
in challenging the insidious presence of toy industry marketing and the peer
pressure their children will encounter if they dont have the right
toys to fit in. Parents might avoid the sense that theyre caving in to
corporate control but they may have to be super-sensitive to bullying
and exclusion, and willing to provide the extra moral support any kid faces
if they dont fit in with the crowd.
Liz Hollis essential toy cupboard list
Under one year old: mirrors, mobiles, rattles, soft books, soft toys
1-3 years: ball, threading toys, stacking cups, push-pull toys, sand
and water toys, crayons and paper, plastic jug and beakers for pouring water
3-5 years: dressing-up clothes, felt-tipped pens, colouring books and
paper, an indoor tent, jigsaw puzzles, construction toys, a plastic tea set
5-7 years: skipping rope, playing cards, little people toys, a post office
7-10 years: Junior Scrabble, snakes and ladders, collections of things,
a money box
Giochi Preziosi is an Italian company group which also makes snack foods
many of them bearing the same cartoon brands as its toys. Its part-owned
by Clessidra, an investment group with holdings in Italys largest airport
Geobra Brandstatter is privately owned by the Brandstatter family, whose
ancestor established the company in the 19th century. As with many companies
owned by private equity or wealthy families, it has no public environmental
report or policy. Other examples in this report include Character Group Ltd
and Vivid Imaginations.
Wooden toymaker Brio is majority owned by Swedish investment company
Proventus AB. Its other holdings are an odd mixture of a freight airline with
a number of not-for-profit outfits, such as a theatre group, and a marine environmental
research company based in Israel.(11)
Berwind Corporation, which owns Elmers Products, the owner of the
Galt and Horrible Science brands, is a US investment company which started out
in the 19th century with coal and forestry operations in the Appalachians. It
still holds these interests, as well as a marine waxes brand which uses nanotechnology
in some of its products, and a specialist coating company which manufactures
chemicals for military specifications.(12)
Zapf Creation, a German toy company, was fined £18,000 in November
2007 for failing to recover packaging waste for a two year period to 2006.(13)
Hasbro is one of the worlds largest toy companies. It has been
widely criticised for working conditions in factories it uses in China.(14)
Along with Mattel, it was criticised in 2009 for lobbying for a bill which was
likely to put many small-scale and artisan toymakers in the USA out of business.(15)
Mattel, owner of Barbie, is one of the worlds biggest toy companies.
Like many others, it manufactures the vast majority of its products in China,
where it has been criticised for poor working conditions. According to the book
The Real Toy Story by investigative journalist Eric Clark, these
included workers enduring 11 to 12 hour days for as little as $1 a day, and
having to live in company dormitories where in some cases they had to share
Vivid Imaginations is majority owned by private equity firm Phoenix Partners.
Other Phoenix holdings include Musto, a company which sold bloodsports clothing
and equipment and ASCO, a provider of logistics to fossil fuel exploration companies.(17,18)
Disneys Hong Kong Disneyworld theme park, in which it has a half-share,
has been the subject of controversy not only because of its record of labour
rights infringements in its Chinese factories, but also because of the immediate
environmental impacts of the theme park itself. Breeding pairs of white-bellied
sea eagles would, conservationists feared, be disturbed by planned firework
displays, and the park was forced to pull plans to serve shark fin soup at banquets.
According to campaigners, many sharks, including endangered species, had their
fins sliced off while they were still alive, and were then thrown back into
the water to die as waste.(19)
Green Dot is the recently-merged Natural Collection and Ethical Superstore
which own the Little Green Radicals brand of toys and childrenswear, which is
made entirely from Fairtrade certified organic cotton.
Maya Organic is part of a development NGO in Karnataka, India which provides
business support, training and marketing for worker-owned co-operatives, including
several which produce wooden toys.
Traidcraft is one of the UKs largest and longest-running fair trade
trading companies, part of a group of organisations campaigning for and implementing
EcoToys Srl is an Italian toy company which sells a range of environmentally-themed
toys such as solar powered toy helicopters.
Russimco is a UK company which imports toys from China and Eastern Europe.
Ethical toys such as FSC-certified wood and battery-free toys form a small part
of its range.
Paperpod is a small UK business which makes and sells large, sturdy toys
made from recycled cardboard which, when assembled, form aeroplanes, Wendy Houses,
chairs and other shapes.
Kenana Knitters is a co-operative from a rural area of Kenya where women
workers can fit knitting toys around their agricultural work. The toys are mainly
made from locally-sourced wool dyed with plants from the co-operatives
US Federation of Public Interest Research Groups toy
safety campaign produces an annual report and shopping guide on dangerous
1 Hauser & Calafat 2005, Phthalates and human health. Journal
of Occupational & Environmental Medicine
2 www.corporate-responsibility.org 11/09/2009
3 http://www.mothercareplc.com/responsible-sourcing 14/09/2009
4 Reuters 5/6/2009 Mattel gets $2.3mln fine for lead-tainted toys
5 Reuters 8/11/2007 Spain joins Chinese toy recall
6 Euractiv.com 19/12/2008 Toy safety given EU boost ahead of festive period
7 Guardian 16/8/2006, Times Business 15/6/2009
8 New York Times 18/9/2007 In Europe, some toy makers shun the China label
9 www.character-online.com/products/HM-Armed-Forces/ 14/09/2009
10 www.clessidrasgr.it, 11/09/2009
11 www.proventus.se 11/09/2009
12 www.berwind.com 13/9/2009
13 ENDS Report February 2008
14 National Labor Committee July 2008, Nightmare on Sesame Street
15 Washington Examiner 30/01/2009
16 Label Letter March/April 2007
17 www.musto.com 25/10/2007
18 www.ascoworld.com 26/10/2007
19 Singapore SPCA report, 23/06/2009
20 Guardian Family 20/01/2007
As Good As Gold?
In an extract from Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairns new book Consumer Kids,
the authors describe how big business is grooming our children for profit.
Chasing profit is what companies do and, in todays consumer world, the
childrens market is a gold-rush opportunity for those prospecting for
profit. The total child-oriented market in the UK is worth more than £99
billion and over the last five years it has grown 33 per cent. Little wonder
then that corporations are eager to have a slice of this large and growing pie.
As we discuss, the infiltration of commercialism into almost all spheres of
childrens lives over the past decade is such that there is no easy line
to draw between what is commercial or not commercial for children. Children
inhabit a seamless, branded world where celebrities, toys, TV shows and electronics
are almost indistinguishable. What is designed to persuade and what is designed
to entertain is hard to tell apart.
To be sure, there are upsides. Life as a consumer is a story of fun for kids,
with all the pleasures and joys that unfold from their engagement with film,
foods, toys, gadgets and games. By and large, children embrace these as opportunities.
However, the downsides are no less real and result, as night follows day, from
the practices of the companies we call the child catchers. These are businesses
that are making calculated choices to target children at a younger and younger
age. They play on their dreams and exploit their vulnerabilities. All of this,
of course, has an environmental edge to it too. In the context of climate change
we are being asked to cut wasteful patterns of consumption at the same time
as we are raising a new generation of eager consumer kids.
Whats more, the commercial world that consumer kids inhabit, on phones,
TVs or computers, is now far less mediated by adults than ever before. When
opportunity becomes overload, this has a psychological effect, and the evidence
we set out clearly suggests that the more materialistic children are, the less
happy they, and their family lives, are likely to be.
A house full of sweets, clothes, music, gadgets and toys is not just difficult
to tidy, but may have diminishing returns. Many parents talk of their children
becoming bored with what they have. Four out of five children under the age
of twelve receive over ten toys a year, although close to two thirds of those
toys are then thrown, unbroken, away. Of course, the reason is that, for children
just as for their parents, the consumer promise is that there is always more
just around the corner...
More than a third of children have their own PC or laptop, while two thirds
have their own games console. The number of children who access the internet
from their own personal space is rising fast with almost a quarter of all UK
children able to surf the net away from their parents in the privacy of their
It is salutary to just take a look at the numbers relating to childrens
screen time. In total, children spend an average of 5 hours and 18 minutes every
single day in front of a screen. Thats 2 hours 36 minutes of TV; 1 hour
18 minutes on the internet; and 1 hour 24 minutes on a games console. Total
screen time, then, is around 2,000 hours a year. If we consider that children
aged 9 to 11 spend 900 hours in class per year and children aged 6 to 12 spend
an average of 3.5 hours per day with their parents, childrens time in
front of a screen is more than double their time in class and more than one-and-a-half
times what they spend with parents.
The screen can no longer be classed as an electronic babysitter that keeps
children occupied. It is a whole, electronic world in which they are immersed
and which is underpinned firmly and securely by a profit motive. The conventional
paradigm of childhood as a life stage that revolves around family and schools
has had to change. Its the commercial world that dominates the time of
One of the consequences of all this could be called natural deficit disorder.
Recent research compared what children knew about species in nature and the
characters and species in the world of Pokemon game cards. They found that eight-year-olds
could identify 25 per cent more Pokemon characters than wildlife species. The
research conclusion, delivered with the dry wit of a team of trained zoologists,
was that conservationists are doing less well than the creators of Pokemon
at inspiring interest in their subjects.
Investigative journalist Eric Clark found that:
Barbies role as a doll representing women as sexual objects has
been supplanted by Bratz. (Interestingly, mothers whose own mothers squirmed
at Barbies impossible shape now see her as a traditional safe doll). Bratz
is the doll of the Britney Spears generation, with her skimpy clothes, thick
make-up and crazes for boys and fashion. The spin-offs reinforce it: the Bratz
Superstyling Funkivity Book for six-year-olds has luscious lip tips,
design your own sexy skirt, and tips on being an irresistible
flirt... It is all part of the sexualising of younger target groups for
marketing reasons. Always a selling instrument, sex is now aimed firmly at tweens
(so called because they are classified by marketeers as falling between
early childhood and teenage years). It is meant to make them feel older, more
empowered, more likely to demand successfully what they want.
The success of Bratz marketing is clear across products. It is now one of the
top video games, only just tailing the massively popular Need for Speed.
There are no requirements for online commercial content to have any educational
value, nor is there any framework for vetting childrens websites
or indeed a growing number of electronic toys that claim to be educational.
It is an ambitious project, but developing research-based, universal standards
for what constitutes educational content would mean that efforts can be channelled
into promoting the good stuff, rather than just decrying the bad.
Our book is the result of research with over 3,000 children and we conclude
with a Childrens Manifesto drawn up from suggestions from
children themselves. They would like commercial organisations to be honest and
up front with them about their products and services; they would like respect
from advertisers and retailers and they would also appreciate protection against
inappropriate content. Conversations and research with hundreds of parents also
helped us to compile a Parents Manifesto. The things that parents
want to help their children develop above all else are enterprise and the courage
to be active rather than passive consumers, compassion towards others, regardless
of what stuff they have and the resilience to learn from what the
world, commercial or otherwise, has to throw at them.
Working for Mattel
Sarah is a bright and bubbly girl. She has an easy going nature, making
her a little people magnet always the centre of fun
and laughter at school. She goes on the computer a lot and has just started
using the internet to play games and chat.
This has led to something new for Sarah. Because shes a busy little
girl with lots of contacts in lots of places, she has been recruited through
a childrens chat room site to work as a sales agent for the Barbie
Girls MP3 player. Its quite a tough job. OK, the job provided her
with a brand new, shiny, pink Barbie Girls MP3 player, but she must be
sure that it accompanies her wherever she goes: to school, to gym, to
Brownies, to training sessions, to dance everywhere. And she cant
just leave it in the locker room: she has been instructed to extol the
many and various virtues of the Barbie Girl MP3 player to everyone she
meets and urge them to buy one too. Whats more she has been briefed
to take copious photos of each and every one of those sales missions and
mail them back to the chat room for Mattel.
Her demanding job description also includes contracting and designing
her own fun site for the MP3 player and conscripting her extended network
of friends into membership. And it doesnt stop there. Sarah has
to log onto her favourite websites and blog madly about Barbie Girl and
then persuade all of her mates to meet her on the Barbie Girl website
so she can pepper their conversations with product recommendations. Because
this is a serious contemporary employment contract she is on a payment
by results scheme too. There are points to be collected for leaving Barbie
endorsements on other sites and bonuses for producing truly convincing
photographic evidence that she is selling hard, hard, hard.
Sarah, by the way, is seven years old.
Consumer Kids (2009) by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn is published by Constable
and costs £8.99.