Non-Toxic Toyland

Against a backdrop of product recalls, Pottery Barn Kids raises the bar with eco-friendly toys and a focus on integrity.


If you’re like me you spend a fair portion of each holiday season assembling plastic toys made in China, which often arrive unassembled in several dozen pieces. I have to admit, I do so begrudgingly. Of course I appreciate that all holiday gifts are given with the best of intentions and that, in the spirit of the season, we should appreciate all we have and are given. But the truth of the matter is, however magical the color photos on any given toy box look, what rests inside the package is often another story.


Last Christmas and Chanukah my son received, among other things, the Evenflo ExersauserBaby Einstein Color Blocks and a Fisher Price Go Diego Boat Toy. While the Exersauser took a painfully long time to put together (the instructions might as well have been written in Chinese), both the Color Blocks and Boat Toy were recalled for a violation of lead paint standards. How do I know this? Because I monitored their status on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) website. How would an average parent who does not obsess about such matters know this? Most wouldn’t, as virtually no marketer spends as much recalling a dangerous product as promoting its sale.


The CPSC’s list of 2009 toy recalls for lead and related safety violations is shockingly long, particularly considering the publicity uproar surrounding the 2007 lead-laced toy recalls, where Mattel Inc. alone took back over 1.5 million toys. Are toy industry standards improving? If they are, then it seems to be happening rather slowly. Companies including Various Toys, DND Imports and TDI International recalled products for lead paint violations in 2009, despite new consumer safety legislation banning lead, beyond minute levels, in children’s toys.


Since corporate standards sometimes fail and CPSC auditing resources are themselves limited, dangerous toys inevitably slip through the cracks. The actual number of lead-laced toys on our store shelves is surely higher than we realize. That’s a serious issue since even limited lead exposure can lead to life-long learning and behavioral disorders in children. My sense is that as long as China remains the world’s toy factory, parents get torpedoed by escalating safety and regulatory risks. 


The environmental integrity of plastic toys is another matter for consideration, as parents are all but left in the dark as to the ecological and health-related impacts of the chemicals used during the manufacturing process. Many toys sold in the US are made from PVC, a poisonous plastic.


“PVC is the most toxic plastic for our health and the environment,” says the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in a recently published Fact Sheet on PVC and children. “No other plastic releases as many dangerous chemicals. These included dioxins, phthalates, vinyl chloride, ethylene dichloride, lead, cadmium, and organotins. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products.”  


There is also no sure-fire way for parents to determine which toys on Toys R’ Us shelves contain PVC and which do not, since no labeling standard exists for the industry. Material disclosure options are left up to individual companies, and most companies opt not to disclose much of anything. That begs a question: What is a concerned parent to do? On the upside, there are some wonderful online resources and product alternatives for those inclined to opt out of the black box, toxic toy system. 


I recommend starting with the Green Guide, an online resource containing facts, environmental impact data, product comparisons and shopping information. Browsing through Green Guide it should become fairly clear that one need not sacrifice fun and ingenuity for peace of mind. From PVC and pthalate-free LEGOs to PlaSmart’s PlasmaCar and Radio Flyer’s Earth Wagon, the selection of toys on Green Guide is fairly broad. It includes selections from small as well as larger companies, indicating that that the trend toward eco-friendly toys is not a temporary fad, but rather a genuine shift in the global market.



Global to Green

At the Pottery Barn Kids Corte Madera store, the statement reads loud and clear: Green is here, the company is invested, and quality comes first. A huge wall of environmentally friendly products – cars, cranes, planes, trains, recycling and dump trucks made from sustainable rubberwood and painted with natural, water-based dyes; all-terrain vehicles made of 100 percent recycled eco-plastics; phthalate-free zoo animals and figurines; BPA-free Klean Kanteen® Water Bottles and other amusements – greets arriving customers and provides a wonderful selection of holiday gifts for choosy parents.


“One of Pottery Barn Kids top priorities is the health and safety of children as well as the environment,” says Christina Nicholson, Director of Sustainable Development at Williams-Sonoma Inc. “Offering simple, safe, high-quality products are founding principles of our brand, which is why we have such a variety of eco-friendly products. Our customers have asked for more unique, eco-friendly products and we are excited to be able to offer a broad assortment.” 


Unlike so many other mainstream toy brands, Pottery Barn Kids sets a relatively high bar, not just for its designated eco-friendly products, but for everything it sells. Whereas toy industry standards determine 600 lead parts per million as an acceptable lead content range for products sold in the US, Pottery Barn Kids abides by an internal standard of 90 lead parts per million. The company also voluntarily tests for a variety of other compounds, including antimony (Sb), arsenic (As), barium (Ba), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), mercury (Hg), and selenium (Se). Remarkably, not every toy company does that.


Product development-wise, Nicholson sees expansion opportunities. “Customers are responding very well to our eco-friendly offerings,” she says. “They appreciate the benefits these products offer their home and children. With each season we will focus on growing our eco-friendly product assortment in all categories – toys, furniture, textiles and décor.” 


In addition to eco-friendly toys, Pottery Barn Kids also offers FSC-Certified furniture and organic bedding. In 2008 the company reintroduced its Anywhere Chair, which has long been been a staple in the Pottery Barn Kids assortment, with a new “hybrid” insert made from 30 percent sustainable soy-based foam. Further plans for eco-makeovers on existing products, as well as the development of new eco-product lines through partnerships with manufacturers Sprig ToysPlan Toy and Green Toys, are reportedly in the works.


“We are parents too and we are committed to making sure everything we sell is as safe for our customer’s kids as we demand that it be for our own,” says Nicholson. “We recognize that there is much more to be done, and we are committed to growing even more eco-friendly as a company.”


Nicholson’s attitude is a signal to parents – and smart marketers, too. Some US toy companies puff up their “rigorous standards.” Others blame lax oversight on the part of the Chinese government, or on the part of US regulators for their quality-related woes. On the other hand, Pottery Barn Kids, having made a significant investment in green toys while humbly communicating environmental and safety-related ambitions for the future, gives people a better sense of assurance. They neither over-promise nor under-deliver. And that’s the key to building trust.



About the author

Christine Arena is an award-winning author, brand strategist and trend forecaster. She is co-founder and CEO at GENEROUS, a creative marketing agency for visionary startups


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