Ursa the Bear by Areaware, $150, MMTC.
The hottest colour for toys this Christmas is green. Forget mass-produced, commercialised, movie tie-in merchandise and the latest battery-operated craze – thinking parents are increasingly searching for toys with a conscience to put beneath the tree.
Savvy consumers are tapping into Melbourne’s first wave of eco-friendly toy retailers for toys free from toxic chemicals, made from recycled or natural materials, manufactured ethically, that will biodegrade safely and not clog landfill for generations.
Melinda Bito, founder of green toy website Eco Toys, was one of the first Melburnians to recognise the growing demand for sustainable toys.
“I was inspired by my daughter Safari,” Bito says. “When she got plastic, battery-operated, noisy toys for her first Christmas, it just didn’t seem to fit with me.”
Looking for alternatives, Bito began researching and quickly found there was a market for quality, sustainable toys. Her website expanded to a shopfront in Hawthorn last year as demand increased.
“There is definitely more interest in green toys as people become more environmentally conscious, ask more questions, read the labels on products and research things on the internet,” she says.
Green Toys Fire Engine, $39.96.
Wooden, educational and quality toys have long been the focus of Hampton shop The Toy Soldier, which has been advising locals on less-commercial toy choices for 16 years. Assistant manager Deirdre McDonough says customers are becoming more discerning and asking more questions about the origin of the stocked toys.
“It’s mainly new customers who ask those questions. Most of our clientele come back year after year because they know that every wooden toy we carry is from sustainable resources,” McDonough says.
“But more customers are becoming concerned about the possibility of paint being lead-based, chemicals in the products and where items are made. They’re becoming more educated, and that’s a good thing.”
Certainly public concern has been raised in recent years about the possible dangers of chemicals such as Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used in some plastic baby bottles and toys and can interfere with hormone systems, and phthalates, a group of chemicals that are commonly added to plastic toys to make them soft. The phthalate DEHP has been shown to affect reproductive development, particularly in young boys.
BPAs and some phthalates, particularly DEHP, have been banned in most areas of the US and European Union, however, Australian authorities have yet to follow suit.
In February, Australia’s National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) reviewed the national use of phthalates and found enough concern to warrant further study.
Of the 25 phthalates used in Australia in products such as baby lotions and talcum powder, shower curtains, food wrap, cosmetics, perfumes and baby bottles, NICNAS is further examining nine (including DEHP), with particular focus on their use in toys.
It’s all a bit too slow, according to Malvern woman Elizabeth Stevens, mum of three-year-old Connor.
“Parents should be able to trust that the toys we choose off the shelves will not pose any health threats to our children. Of course we have to be the ultimate advocates for our kids, but it makes me sick to think that Connor could be exposed to harmful toxins just by putting a rattle in his mouth,” Stevens says.
She is just one of many parents looking for alternatives to mainstream toys.
Teething Keys made from cornstarch, $12.95.
Fairfield mum Donna MacMullin launched her sustainable toy website Itty Bitty Greenie in July last year after searching for green toys for her baby son Aidan. She says the response to her website has been: “phenomenal, well beyond my expectations”.
However, sourcing products for the website required a lot of research.
“There’s a lot of ‘green-washing’ out there (brands trumpeting green credentials with little commitment to the philosophy). I have to do lots of checking to make sure products are properly certified and tested,” she says.
MacMullin says the most popular toys on her site are from US manufacturer Green Toys, which makes a variety of products from recycled plastic milk bottles.
Other green offerings from a variety of retailers this year include a wooden bird whistle, coloured with natural vegetable dye, with a percentage of profits directed to an Indian artisan community; hand puppets sewn from recycled jumpers with donations to underprivileged children; stylised bears or gorillas made from sustainably harvested new-growth beech wood, or a baby doll made from BPA- and phthalate-free vinyl, organic cotton and filled with recycled PET fibre.
Green Toys 17-piece tea set, $39.96.
The general manager of the Australian Toy Association (ATA), Paul Hodgson, says Australian parents are becoming increasingly diligent about toy safety. However, he says ATA members are yet to significantly embrace green toys.
It’s a different story in the US, where 2010 research by environmental group Earthsense showed that green toy sales were expected to reach $US1 billion, or 5 per cent of the total toy sales within five years.
The US sale of sustainable toys was given a boost when the country’s biggest toy seller, Walmart, began adding toys made from recycled or natural materials to its shelves last year.
And this year, the country’s biggest toy fair, in New York, featured a Green Pavilion to showcase sustainable toys for the first time, with the Toy of the Year award going to a boat constructed from earth-friendly materials.
» Eco Toys
651 Burwood Road, Hawthorn East, 9078 7500
» Itty Bitty Greenie, 0420 698 926
» Miles Mason Trading Company,
114 Greville Street, Prahran, 9529 6359
» The Toy Soldier
391 Hampton Street, Hampton, 9521 6688