Toys - dolls & action figures

Ethical buyer's guide to dolls and action figures

Ethical buyer's guide to dolls and action figures

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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The report text below includes:

  • profiles of toy companies
  • toy-free living
  • the state of the companies' environmental policies
  • rating of companies' climate change impacts
  • labour conditions in toy factories
  • toxic ingredients
  • soldier toys
  • essential toy cupboard list
  • the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood


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 of childhood.

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 they’re 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 we’re concerned, you – the consumer – have a right to know how companies spend the money you give them.

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 aren’t 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.

It’s 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, Hasbro’s 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 shouldn’t 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 Foundation’s 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 any”.

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 campaigners.

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 entity.

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)

Poison toys

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 imports.(4)

Lead hasn’t 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.

War Games

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 UK’s 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?

Climate counts

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...

Hasbro 40
Mattel 18
JAKKS Pacific 0(distributed in the UK by Vivid Imaginations)

Source:, September 2009

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 in?

Journalist Liz Hollis’ suggested list for the ‘essential toy cupboard’ stresses that what’s 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 didn’t 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 songs.

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 don’t have the ‘right’ toys to fit in. Parents might avoid the sense that they’re 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 don’t 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 set
7-10 years: Junior Scrabble, snakes and ladders, collections of things, a money box

Company profiles

Giochi Preziosi is an Italian company group which also makes snack foods – many of them bearing the same cartoon brands as its toys. It’s part-owned by Clessidra, an investment group with holdings in Italy’s largest airport management company.(10)
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 Elmer’s 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 world’s 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 world’s 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 beds.(16)
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)
Disney’s 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 UK’s largest and longest-running fair trade trading companies, part of a group of organisations campaigning for and implementing just trade.
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-operative’s garden.


CORE coalition

US Federation of Public Interest Research Groups toy safety campaign produces an annual report and shopping guide on dangerous toys


1 Hauser & Calafat 2005, ‘Phthalates and human health.’ Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine
2 11/09/2009
3 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 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 14/09/2009
10, 11/09/2009
11 11/09/2009
12 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 25/10/2007
18 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 Nairn’s new book Consumer Kids, the authors describe how big business is grooming our children for profit.

Chasing profit is what companies do and, in today’s consumer world, the children’s 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 children’s 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.

What’s 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...

Screen time

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 room.

It is salutary to just take a look at the numbers relating to children’s screen time. In total, children spend an average of 5 hours and 18 minutes every single day in front of a screen. That’s 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, children’s 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. It’s the commercial world that dominates the time of today’s children.

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”.

Sexualising children

Investigative journalist Eric Clark found that:
“Barbie’s role as a doll representing women as sexual objects has been supplanted by Bratz. (Interestingly, mothers whose own mothers squirmed at Barbie’s 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 children’s 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 ‘Children’s 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 she’s a busy little girl with lots of contacts in lots of places, she has been recruited through a children’s chat room site to work as a sales agent for the Barbie Girls MP3 player. It’s 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 can’t 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. What’s 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 doesn’t 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.

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