The Ethical Toy?

As a parent who likes to think of myself as relatively ecologically and morally responsible, I often find I’m looking to teach my kids about things like buying local or buying from small mom and pop shops when possible or making sure the companies you buy from are ethical in their business practices.  With toys, however, it's a bit harder than that.  The problem with toys is that there are no standards for fair trade, as there is in the food industry, so parents are left to grapple with this issue themselves with few guidelines.  One rule parents have used has been to focus on the smaller companies that are simply presumed to be more ethical because often they are.

Sometimes, however, problems crop up with this.  Sometimes small, independent companies can seem like they are wonderful alternatives to the “big guys” and they are embraced by parents and families everywhere… Only to become the “big guys” who are less ethical than their previous “big guy” counterparts.  The question has to become: How unethical are these big companies?  Are there big companies that we can feel good buying from?  How do we, as parents, know?

One advancement has been the creation of the International Council of Toy Industries’ “Caring, Awareness, Responsible, Ethical” Program (known as ICTI CARE).  This program focuses on working with toy and component manufacturers in countries of the highest risk of abuse and unfair labour practices to create fair labour conditions and programs that focus on employee health and well-being.  Done through an audit program, the Code of Business Practices that these factories must adhere to include fair wages, no child labour, no forced work with employees free to leave at the end of a shift (yes, this has to be a consideration), sick and maternity benefits are provided as accorded to by law, equal pay for equal work, the allowance of employee representation, safe working environments, and more.  Notably, and perhaps most importantly, ICTI CARE focuses on education when factories fail on any of these measures.  It is not a reprimand, but a chance to work with the factory to bring standards up.  As they state in the Code, “The purpose of this Code is to establish a standard of performance, to educate, and to encourage commitment to responsible manufacturing, not to punish.”

Can we suddenly rejoice that we have ethical toy making?  Hardly, but it’s a start, especially as it covers not just factories that work in final products but also the component parts that are often sent elsewhere for final production.  Often people will avoid things “Made in China” (or elsewhere) without realizing that even if the final product is put together in Canada (or the USA or UK, etc.) the component parts may be made elsewhere and made under unethical conditions.  The ICTI CARE program works at all levels, hopefully ensuring all stages of the production process are ethical.

You can find a full list of the ICP Committed Brands here, meaning these companies have agreed to only contract from companies that have the Seal of Compliance from the ICTI CARE program (see note at end on the additional issue of ICTI CARE compliance).  This does not mean that you’ll be on board with every element of these companies’ practices, but you know they are making steps towards an ethical business model, something all businesses should be doing, and if you combine this with your own research into a company you'll likely feel better about your purchases.

Just a few names that may surprise you:

Crayola.  Yep, arguably the biggest art supply companies for kids is quite ethical (both environmentally and with respect to labour), more so than many of their counterparts.  And the non-toxic and washable parts make it that much nicer.

Brio.  Given how hard it is to find most baby products ethically, Brio’s line of toys, strollers, car seats, and furniture is a breath of fresh air.  The toys specifically are also often kid favourites and wood-based meaning you can often pass them down for years to come.

Hasbro.  That’s right, the maker of most of the board games we play, some of the most popular brands of kids’ toys (hello My Little Pony and Nerf), some of the more popular action figures (hello Marvel heroes), and so much more is on board to do it ethically.

Lego.  The childhood favourite that encourages imagination is seen in almost all homes.  Although other companies have tried to copy, no one has been quite successful in it, which is fine when the company is focused on being ethical as well as dominating the marketplace.

If we want to raise aware and responsible children, we have to start with our own behaviour when they are young, including what we buy for them.  Making sure we support companies that are ethical is an important step in this process.  Hopefully by the time our children are older, there will be no need for an programs like ICTI CARE or that it is so universal that the issue of the ethical toy is one of the past.

[Note: Some valid criticisms of the ICTI CARE program exist, with allegations of bribery and working conditions that continue to fall under the “unethical” umbrella while factories are given the stamp of approval.  Although there has been improvement under the ICTI CARE program, it is far from perfect, especially as they branch out to newer areas, such as Hong Kong and other parts of Asia (it began in China only).  For more information on the criticisms and ongoing evaluation of ICTI CARE and other programs, I would recommend checking out Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) which provides information on the actual factories – and companies they represent – that are the most egregious offenders.  Developing a program to ensure ethical standards is only as good as it is enforced.]

By Tracy Cassels

March 17, 2014