“The toy world rarely mirrors the lives of many children”

Catherine Van Reeth, Director General of Toy Industries of Europe, talks about its first awards to promote sustainability and diversity, and why the efforts of small toy companies are as important as the global firms

Written by Rhys Thomas

Posted 30.01.2020 | Business

“The toy world rarely mirrors the lives of many children” thumbnail

You announced today the first Play for Change Awards – a way of celebrating the work toy companies do that sn't necessarily about the bottom line. Why now?

That’s right, they’re actually our first ever awards – and I have no idea how many applications we’ll get! – but I think now is the right time to do such a thing. My hope is that they grow in time, because they’re important. A lot of toy companies, big and small, are already addressing these issues, but very often we don’t know those stories – even within the industry – so hard work and very real change goes unrecognised.

With these awards, we’re also lending credibility to the efforts and achievements of toy companies. We’re working with experts throughout the judging process, so the winners in each category will be selected by those in the best possible position to comment.

What have these awards been created to recognise?

We have three categories to recognise the work of companies who are going the extra mile in promoting sustainability and . One is for products or initiatives aiming to take care of the planet, make it a greener place through sustainability efforts. Our next category is interested in how toy companies are helping to prepare kids for the future challenges in life – those firms who are taking young people into the 21st century. Our final category is all about empowerment and helping to educate and comfort children that all people are acceptable, no matter the race, the gender or physical and mental ability.

You really see that effort, last week walking around London Toy Fair, and this week in Nuremberg at Spielwarenmesse. But we need to talk about it, celebrate it and, through the Play for Change Awards, give some sort of official recognition to those companies making the biggest strides.

I want to stress that we’re not just talking about the big companies here, the multinational household names. Of course, they are in many ways leading the pack – and that leadership should be commended – in more environmentally friendly packaging and manufacturing practices. They have greater means, though, than medium-sized and smaller companies, so it’s natural that their impact will be bigger and more immediate. There are lots of smaller outfits out there now that are making a difference in their own way, coming at the issues of representation or using recycled materials from a more creative angle. They don’t have the same millions of dollars to draw on, but it’s important we acknowledge that small actions can make a big difference.

Where are you seeing the most positive changes towards greater diversity in toys?

It’s about helping children from all walks of life thrive by promoting principles of diversity. That starts with the fundamentals of moving away from the toys-for-boys and toys-for-girls model. It’s no longer the case that construction is for boys, while caring and nurture and play kitchens are the domain of little girls. Dolls, in particular, have been moving in the right direction; there’s a far greater diversity in the body types and races now represented in this category than we saw even just five years ago.

But the issue is more complex than that. The same positive steps have to be taken in the advertising as much as the products. There remains a disconnect in how some toys are marketed and the who, in reality, actually buys them, so we need to celebrate companies who understand and get that right. We’re told more and more that the toy world rarely reflects or mirrors the lives of many children, particularly those with disabilities.

These questions are, of course, not new and have been talked about for a while, but the voices are getting louder and there are certain discussions you cannot avoid anymore. And that’s not just toys: no matter the sector, sustainability and diversity for the future are the key issues. You see that in politics and legislature, and that’s being led by the same societal discussions that are now shaping toys.

Mattel is adding further diversity to its Barbie Fashionista range in 2020

How are these shifts in priorities changing the lobby work of the TIE?

Our day-to-day priorities and lobbying are still very much safety first; we must prioritise safety, because without that key issue in hand, there are no further discussions. But the European Green Deal makes further developments in sustainable manufacturing an inevitability, which will only grow in importance in the coming years. We in the toy industry, of course, have our own set of hurdles to overcome. Often we’re asked to replace certain chemicals, but the reason they are used in the first place is that they are safe for children. We will have to carefully walk that line between safety and the environment.

Finally, as the UK leaves the EU in a matter of hours, where does that leave Britain in relation the TIE and your work?

The BTHA will remain a very valuable member, and we’ll continue our close partnership. We put plans in place a couple of years ago to ensure our work could continue together. In some ways that partnership will be more important than ever: we will rely on them to keep us informed of what’s going on in the UK, and they, in turn, will be kept up to speed, along with our other members, on developments across the EU.

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