Two years ago, Brussels caused a sensation with its Green Deal. A comprehensive package of interrelated proposals followed in mid-July 2021. The EU Action Plan sees sustainable growth as one of the Union’s most important goals: Europe is to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. A good year later, the Commission followed up with its New Consumer Agenda, aimed at giving consumers an active role in the ecological and digital transformation. Among other things, the agenda provides for a revision of product safety for toys and baby articles.
In addition, the issue of design is moving into the focus of Brussels. According to the Commission, 80% of the environmental impact of products originates in the design phase. Brussels is planning a series of initiatives and legal provisions to make sure that products are designed in a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and cycle-oriented manner in the future. At the end of January 2021, the Green Consumption Pledge promptly followed as the first initiative under the New Consumer Agenda. This initiative calls on people, communities and organisations to take part in climate protection measures.
Saving the climate with wood
One of the first companies to participate was Lego. “Businesses have a central role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy and a circular economy,” says Tim Brooks, Vice President for Environmental Responsibility at the LEGO Group. “And we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we’ve decided to work with legislators, consumers, experts and partners to make a positive impact on the planet.” Lego plans to invest US$400 million in sustainable projects by 2023. The Danes, who already launched products made of plant-based plastic three years ago, are also among those taking part in the Bio!Toy conference in Nuremberg from 7 to 8 September 2021. The event, which is supported by Spielwarenmesse eG, aims to provide insights and outlooks into the use of alternative materials.
Is this a golden age for wooden toys, then, because consumers are now viewing plastic with a critical eye and Europe is focusing on combating premature obsolescence and promoting the durability, recyclability and repairability of products? In any event, 82% of Germans are in favour of a longer product life and greater material efficiency, according to an Otto Group survey from January 2021. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber – known in Germany as the “climate pope” – even wants to save nothing less than the world’s climate with his “green Bauhaus movement for the 21st century” and the materials of wood and bamboo. The founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) has recently been advocating that we “build our cities out of wood again”, because wood has superior material and unique system properties. In any event, according to Schellnhuber, the built environment is responsible for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Whether that will be achievable remains doubtful, but wood and bamboo made the headlines in April 2021.
Surfaces can also tell a story
The trend towards alternative, resource-conserving materials should play into the hands of wooden toy suppliers. The fact is, though, that wooden toys have been doing relatively well for years. The industry is growing. According to calculations done by the Fachgruppe Holzspielzeug, the specialist group for wooden toys, the volume of the German market across all sales channels amounts to about €148m. However, wooden toys are not a sure-fire success, as ToyAward juror and market researcher Axel Dammler believes. Sustainability is increasingly becoming a necessary prerequisite for people to buy wooden toys, but not a sufficient one. Dammler believes that the aspect of sustainability will probably become less relevant in the next five to ten years, because consumers will take it for granted. Brand, design and functions will, on the other hand, become more important. However, it is difficult for wooden toy manufacturers to create additional USPs. Wood is not malleable at will, which imposes narrow limits on design. Nevertheless, it doesn’t always have to be the shape that tells a story; sometimes, the surface is enough. It is precisely this form of storytelling that “pure nature products” make use of.
One current example is provided by Sigikid, which bid farewell to wooden toys a good 15 years ago, but is getting back into wooden toy production with its “CudlyWudly” collection. The wooden animals made in Europe are handcrafted from maple wood, have no colour elements and only the face is sketched, giving each animal its own individual expression. The Eichhorn “Baby Pure” baby line also follows this trend, focusing on natural materials, soft colours and clear shapes. The packaging is made of natural cardboard. The sustainability pioneer Plantoys focuses on pure purism. The Thai company has had untreated toys in its range for years. But it wasn’t until 2020 that it decided to launch a “PlanNatural” series that presents the colourful classics of the range in their natural colouring. Their motto? “Children can get closer to nature more than ever before!”
A run on real natural products
With "goki nature", launched in 2014, goki is considered to be a pioneer of this trend. The product line stands for natural woods, which deliberately does without any paints and colours to satisfy consumer demand for untreated wooden toys. The colouration of the wood is achieved through thermal treatment. “The trend towards ecology, sustainability, towards the haptic,” goki managing director Thorsten Koss says, “is fuelling the demand for genuinely natural products.” Wooden Story offers exquisite toys made of natural wood sealed with wax. The result is a pleasantly soft surface that will eventually show the marks of time.
The Danish company Kids Concept – known for its children’s furniture – is launching “Neo” and “Natural” toys that are largely natural. Another example of the “pure philosophy” is their “Doll pram”, a doll’s pram made of beech plywood, with only the wheels adding subtle colour accents. Last but not least, the new building blocks in Haba’s Clever-Up range also pick up on the trend towards a natural look. Whether the renunciation of colour is the result of current aesthetic preferences or rather the consumer’s longing for “natural” nature must remain a matter of speculation. The fact is that the trend is here.