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The Best Toys for Your Tots

By being mindful about the toys you choose, you'll save money, keep toxins out of the playroom, and help workers around the world.

Eric Gundersen’s favorite toy as a toddler was a handmade wooden wagon loaded with blocks. The wagon was small, about a foot square, recalls his father Arnie, and Eric loved building towers with the blocks before crashing them down and building them back up again.

“The blocks were all different shapes and sizes and handcrafted from different woods, so they wereToys different colors,” says Arnie. “It was an indestructible, all-natural toy that we still have. We can use it again for grandkids, now that our kids are grown.”

Arnie and his wife Margaret found the wagon while shopping at a local crafts fair in Connecticut in the early 1970s. They purchased it from a woodworker who was also the retired principal from Margaret’s grade school.

“We’d bump into him at other fairs, and when Eric got older, we introduced him and said, ‘This is the man who made your blocks,’” recalls Margaret, noting how such an experience helps children remember to respect the connections embedded in any product they buy.

The Gundersens point out that not only did their toy purchases keep their dollars in the local economy, but the all-natural products weren’t produced using petroleum-based plastics or chemicals. And, simple toys like blocks help children learn motor skills and use their imaginations.

“Also, it’s not any more costly to buy toys like this,” says Arnie. “It takes a little more planning ahead, because you can’t just run into the Toys-R-Us at the last minute, but it really doesn’t take any more money.”

As we enter the traditional holiday season, the thoughts of many turn to the giving of gifts—especially to children. Read on for a more detailed look at the problems associated with mass-produced toys and for some imaginative and eco-friendly ways to delight all the children on your shopping list.

Toys and Sweatshops

Giant toy manufacturers and retailers spent nearly a billion dollars on advertising in 2003 to persuade American consumers to purchase the $30 billion dollars worth of playthings sold annually in the United States. Of those purchases, more than 75 percent were for toys that originated in China, a country well-documented for perpetuating sweatshop abuses in the supply chain.

According to its 2004 “Toys of Misery” report, the National Labor Committee (NLC) found dozens of sweatshop abuses occurring in a toy factory in the Chinese Chang Ping Township, which they investigated jointly with the China Labor Watch.

The NLC documented how workers at the Foreway Industrial China, Ltd. factory (a producer of toy cars and “Bobblehead” dolls) were forced to work mandatory seven-day weeks, including 18- to 20-hour shifts; received only one day off every other month; were paid below the minimum wage (averaging about 16.5 cents an hour); were prohibited from forming unions; and were housed in cramped dorm rooms with as many as 20 other workers. At the time of the report, Foreway held contracts with Wal-Mart, Disney, and Hasbro, and the “Bobblehead” dolls were produced under licensing agreements with the NFL, NBA, NCAA, and NASCAR.

Moreover, Foreway Industrial is not alone. In 2002, the Washington Post published a profile of a young worker named Li Chunmei who died after a 16-hour day making stuffed animals in the Bainan Toy factory in Dongguan, China. Though the exact cause of Li’s death was never documented, Chinese newspapers—after writing stories about many such workers who “suddenly collapse and die after working exceedingly long hours, day after day”—coined the term guolaosi to mean “overwork death” in describing situations like Li’s.

The abuse even extends to children. In 2000, Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post published a report that children as young as 13 were being used to assemble the toys placed inside McDonald’s “Happy Meals,” and a 2002 NLC report documented child labor in the toy supply chains of Wal-Mart, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Mattel.

Toys and Toxins

The danger to workers involved in toy manufacturing extends beyond the long days and potentially abusive working conditions to the materials used in producing the cheap plastic toys themselves. For example, the Asia Monitor Resource Center has reported that some of the same workers who spent 70 hours a week assembling toys for “Happy Meals” were also poisoned by acetone, an ingredient in the toys’ plastic that is also used as a solvent in paints. The workers were hospitalized with severe irritation of the throat, nose, lungs, and, eyes; some even collapsed on the job and lost consciousness.

Just as troubling to parents is the potential that toxic substances might remain in the toys given to children. Though the dangers of PVC plastics and phthalates (a PVC additive that makes the plastic more flexible) have been well-documented in recent years (potential kidney failure, liver damage, developmental delays, and hearing loss), such materials—banned in other countries—can still be found in plastic toys in the United States. Toys commonly found containing phthalates include soft, flexible items like teething toys and squeeze toys for young children, beach balls, bath toys, and other plasticized items like raincoats. Teething toys can be especially dangerous, since they are meant to be put in the mouth, where phthalates can leach out and be ingested.

Many toy companies are now labeling their products as “PVC-free,” so be sure to look for the label when you’re shopping. In addition, Greenpeace publishes a list of toy companies, and whether they use PVCs and phthalates, on their 2003 Toy Report Card at Updated from a similar 2001 study, the 2003 Report Card also charts the progress of companies that are making improvements.

The Cultural Impact on Kids

Finally, there are the impacts of the consumer culture on young children, who are taught by relentless advertising to crave the latest toy at every turn.

“Children are marketed to by the time they leave the womb,” says writer Juliet Schor. “By their second birthday, they are well aware of logos and are already beginning to ‘brand-bond,’ which is to say, constantly ask for certain brands very early on, and feel that a brand is important to their identity.”

Schor’s new book Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner, 2004) examines the effect of today’s consumer culture on children, drawing on interviews with marketing executives, toy industry insiders, parents, and children.

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit that promotes childhood learning and healthy development, points out that childhood play that is overly dependent on hyped consumer products can undermine a child’s imagination. The Alliance recommends choosing simple toys and letting children initiate play in their own ways, rather than in the ways determined by the toy manufacturers.

Margaret Gundersen agrees.

“It’s really unhealthy for kids to be tied into TV show after TV show and be hyped to buy those toys,” she says. “It takes away from their creative imaginations and makes them think that play is just about ‘Gimme, Mom, gimme, gimme, gimme.’”

Members of Green America’s Green Business Network™ sell a variety of simple toys that don’t come freighted with the baggage of commercialism, are made from safe and nontoxic materials, and weren’t made in sweatshops. For example, sells unique architectural building blocks to stimulate a growing mind’s imagination, Under the Nile sells nontoxic and PVC-free teething toys, and Global Exchange’s online fair trade store sells affordable stuffed animals handmade by a Sri Lankan cooperative.

Use the following checklist when you buy for children this holiday season—or anytime—to avoid the negatives associated with conventional toys:

1. Look for simple toys — Give gifts that stimulate a child’s imagination. Consider items like clay, paints, or other art supplies. Or, give kids materials for building their on toys, such as supplies for assembling a kite or sewing a cloth doll.

2. Buy Local — Visit local arts and crafts fairs to buy all-natural, toxin-free toys (like musical instruments, wooden boats and cars, or handmade dollhouses) directly from local artisans.

3. Buy sweatshop-free — Refer to the resources below, or turn to the National Green Pages to find companies that sell toys not made in sweatshops overseas.

4. Non-material gifts — Offer your time to take a child on an outing, or use your money to pay someone local to share his or her skills with a child. Music or art lessons will have a much more lasting impact than another packaged toy.

Andrew Korfhage



Blessings—800/864-0131, All-natural crafts, dollmaking kits, and Waldorf-inspired books, imaginative and wooden toys, cooperative games, and fair trade items.

Eco-baby Organics—888/ECO-BABY, Stuffed organic cotton toys and wooden toys.

Global Exchange Fair Trade Store—Fairly traded musical instruments, dolls, quilts, pull toys, blocks, puzzles, baby toys, and more.—Online vegan children’s super-store featuring cars, trains, building blocks, dolls, play kitchens, and arts and crafts supplies.

North Star Toys—800/737-0112, Creative, nontoxic, nonviolent wooden toys and puzzles, created
to stimulate a child’s imagination. Made by a family business.

Peapods Natural Toys and Baby Care—651/695-5559, A mother-owned store in St. Paul, MN, offering wood toys, Waldorf dolls, dress-up, baby items, and books.

Roots and Wisdom—608/536-3028, Natural wooden toys, cloth Waldorf dolls, organic, fair trade, wool children’s clothing, homeschool supplies.

Toys from the Heart—610/948-4894, Specializes in natural toys and crafts.

Under the Nile—800/883-4402, Organic and nontoxic dolls, puppets, and teething toys.

More green-living articles from the Green American »

Article Summary

Choose eco-friendly, socially responsible toys for your children.

Save money by choosing durable toys that will stimulate your child's imagination and last for years.

Keep toxins out of the environment and protect workers.

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