To play or not to play

Should Toy companies be more socially responsible? is a question that is being increasingly discussed by people who see children surrounded by a sea of plastic toys
and read about the infusion of
chemicals in everyday things.There are several stories of how toxic contents of toys harm children. Lead, phthalates and cadmium are known and common threats to young children all over the world. From time to time global toy manufacturers have had to recall toys from the market. These toys were either poorly made with parts detaching and causing hurt or contained toxic elements.

We found that over 56 International toy brands are sold in India, either directly or though the proliferating e-commerce portals. Of these 56 companies only 11 company websites mention CSR activities of which only 4 – LEGO, Mattel, Walt Disney and Wild Republic Toys talk of socially responsible activities being conducted in India.

According to a study by CSE majority of toys in the Indian market contain toxic chemicals. Phthalates are chemicals used to soften plastic. So, soft and inflatable toys can be more dangerous for children who tend to put these in their mouth. The CSE study showed that even toys marked as safe for infants and toddlers were found to contain dangerous levels of the chemicals. While EU and other countries regulate the chemical content, India and China do not have such standards. In India, BIS has three sets of voluntary standards but none of these cover phthalates. The study by CSE found over 45% of the samples exceeded internationally accepted safe limits for phthalates.

So, what is the solution? Perhaps the answer lies in hand crafted toys made of natural products. Indian hand crafted toys like the clay dancing doll from Panruti (Tamil Nadu), shapes of birds, animals and musicians from Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), leather horses from Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh) have amused children across generations. Toy manufacturing was a large part of the handicraft industry that used to provide livelihood to thousands of rural artisans. However, like most handicrafts, cheap imports and inability to innovate have lead to a collapse of this product category.

Could a revival of the handcrafted toy industry be worth looking at?
Dastkar Nature Bazaar organized a kids fair which had handcrafted products from various parts of the country. Conversations with children, parents and toy manufacturers revealed some interesting insights.

Parents are increasingly concerned about the high plastic content in most toys and view the handcrafted toys made of wood and other organic materials as a welcome change. They also view the hand crafted toys with nostalgia, a reminder of their own childhood.

Children are easily bored with same / similar toys that everyone seems to have. Hand crafted toys are fairly unique which the children instinctively take to. Infact Anurag Rana of Leela Design who manufactures handmade crotched toys had to replenish her stall at the Dastkar Bazaar repeatedly as stock ran out. She says, ‘the unique nature of these handcrafted toys makes the children reach out for them’.

We studied the websites of toy companies whose products are sold either directly or via distributors in India. These are large corporations and their products are sold around the world. An interesting insight is that none of these companies produce non-plastic/wooden toys.

A further analysis revealed that in India the CSR activities of these toy manufacturers are rather limited in scope:

– LEGO Group – Care for Education Program
– Mattel – Primary Education (Pratham India Mumbai Initiative)
– Walt Disney – Adult Literacy (Women Empowerment)
– Wild Republic Toys – Education, Vocational training, Rescue and rehabilitation center for animals and Fund grant.

On the sustainability front the areas focussed on were:

– Reducing environment impact from their products
– Packaging innovations – Use of recycled materials like paper and wood fiber for packaging.
– Reduce CO2 emissions.
– Reduce energy, water consumption
– Waste Management
– Search for innovations in product raw materials. Reduced usage of plastic.
– Compliance with new US, Europe toy safety directives.
– Employee Awareness on sustainability

Interestingly none of these involve promotion and propagation of handcrafted toys, which could clearly give them a lead in creating eco friendly, creative and fun products while supporting rural artisans.

Apart from the toy industry, corporates can help create livelihoods for local artisans by allocating CSR funds to hand crafted toys based projects. These initiatives could encompass, Design inputs that modernize traditional toys, Skills training for local artisans on new designs and Generation of marketing and distribution platformse.g. a web based platform or a corporate gifting platform

There is clearly much to be done and a large unique opportunity awaits anyone who wants to build something new and creative.

 

This study was supported by IIM Udaipur. We would like to thank Prof Janat Shah, Director IIM Udaipur for his contribution and support.

 

Article coauthored by Utkarsh Majmudar and originally published in Economic Times.

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