Plush for the Planet

Meredith Schwartz, Candice Yang, February 1, 2009

Green or eco-friendly are the hot buzzwords, and one of the few areas experiencing growth across a wide variety of product categories. The plush category is an especially natural fit for the revolution in environmental consciousness, for a number of practical reasons. First, its animal theme both appeals to and reinforces love of nature. Second, it is intended for children and concerns about the effects of chemicals on children’s health drives much of the switch to natural and organic products.

Hosung

Hosung's My Natural Toy Collection

Third, plush is popular with zoo, aquarium and hospital gift shops: all places where the environmental and health benefits of natural products fit seamlessly into the primary mission.

Meanwhile, last year’s record number of toy recalls has driven a lot of consumers who previously hadn’t paid much attention to such concerns to start looking for natural or organic materials and product methods on the grounds that they are less likely to pose safety hazards for their children and grandchildren.

While there are many variations on the theme, eco-friendly plush products tend to fall into three main categories.

Nothing But Nature

This group of plush products rests its green or eco-friendly claim to fame on its use of all-natural, and sometimes organic, materials — cotton rather than poly, no beads or chemical dyes. Sean Hellenbrand, director of sales,

Fair indigo eco friendly Calley the Cat

Calley the Cat from 
Fair Indigo

gift division, Aurora, says, “We dictated to various fabric mills what we wanted, a soy or a cotton based material. We went with soy stuffed with kapok, which is grown in the rainforest so it is sustainable and renewable. The string is made from hemp, literature on recycled paper, and hangtag. We’re trying to be as green as possible and still have a toy that people want to buy.” And Aurora has plans for even more natural materials in the works: “We are going to be introducing cotton down the road with our baby/infant line. We’re also experimenting with different kinds of stuffing made from corn husks,” Hellenbrand adds.

In the past these products have been marked by a more subdued color palette which has kept them restricted to a niche market. However these days, that palette is growing in popularity with parents who want their kids’ things to coordinate with their own décor. The Russ Companies’ Lauren Diani and Jackie DeBlasi, both directors of product development, told G&DA, “The color palettes are all natural colors; they come from vegetable dyes. That’s why some of them look earth-toned and muted. We kept the palette that way because it is also gender neutral. These days a lot of parents are decorating their nurseries in neutral tones like sage green, not only for having another child but to keep with that eco-friendly look. Because you don’t really have control of the coloring, it is the biggest challenge,” they added. “But it is easy to get the dye to stick to the cotton. And as with a t-shirt, 100-percent cotton always feels better than one that is 50/50.”


Global Green Pals from Restoration Gallery eco friendly dolls

Global Green Pals from 
Restoration Gallery

For those who don’t want the muted look, advances in natural dyeing techniques allow for brighter options, as do some of the compromises instituted by some mainstream manufacturers’ lines, such as Mary Meyer’s Earth Mates, as they enter the market. However, retailers considering adding natural plush should be be aware that going more natural can have some trade-offs: natural cotton filling is much heavier than artificial beads, and some of the super-soft materials recently developed have no natural counterpart.



Organic Planet Pixies by I Love My 
Planet Toys

Learning Toys

A second group of eco-friendly plush toys may or may not be produced from natural materials, but they pin their eco-friendly claim to fame on their educational efforts. For example the Tails for Tomorrow plush collection from Fiesta educates children about endangered species and conservation efforts. Meanwhile, Planet Pixies, Idbids and Global Green Pals deliver a more generalized “green” message about eco-friendly actions that children can take to help save the planet such as recycling and turning off lights and electronic gadgets when not in use.

Pricing Higher, Not Prohibitive

Downsides of natural plush can also include a higher price point, which, while historically not a deal breaker for the natural consumer, may slow mainstream adoption in these troubled economic times. Meyer says, “It is slightly more expensive, maybe 20 percent. We really hope and already see that people who are interested in this are willing to pay the extra money. The response has been outstanding. And if it is successful, we can order more and hopefully the price can come down a little bit.” Russ estimates that its eco-plush costs about 15 percent more than its conventional line. “It is not really that much of a difference. In soft goods it is a little difficult because they are used to a certain size at a certain price point. Our prices are very competitive compared to other people who do organic or 100 percent natural product, and we think consumers do understand the added value, especially for baby,” say Diani and DeBlasi.


Tales 4 Tomorrow by Fiesta Toy Eco friendly plush dolls

Tales 4 Tomorrow by Fiesta Toy

Hellenbrand sees the biggest price gap between eco and regular plush. His company’s eco-plush is priced two and a half to three times higher than Aurora’s conventional line. That is still not very expensive, since Aurora, a value-priced vendor, owns its own factories.

“Let’s say I wholesale something for $15 that is 12”; I would normally wholesale that for $5 or $6,” he explains. “We saw a huge response when we first launched it, but as the economy went south, people began looking for more of a break.”

                                                             

You Talking to Me?


Simply Natural Plush by The Russ Companies eco friendly plush dolls

Simply Natural Plush by The Russ Companies

Aurora conceives of its eco-plush as a niche product. “We’re catering to about 1 to 2 percent of the population. When we have it in eco-friendly kind of stores, it moves very nicely but it is not for everyone,” says Hellenbrand. “But 20 percent of our business is zoos and aquariums, so they love it; it is part of their message. We move quite a bit through them. We’re in Whole Foods with it as well.”

In contrast, Mary Meyer considers its eco-plush as a mainstream offering. “It is not targeted to people who are trying to be green — it is targeted to everyone,” says Meyer. And Russ says it is seeing a bit of both: its eco lines are selling both into new, green-focused accounts and existing Russ retailers. “It is early to get a full read,” say Diani and DeBlasi, “but it looks very promising.”

Everything Old is New Again

Our cover bear is a perfect example of this category: plush made out of recycled materials. In this case, water bottles. Called “The Fuzz that Was,” Mary Meyer is making stuffed animals out of recycled PET plastic, which has also been used for such things as polar fleece apparel. Each creature bears a hangtag explaining how many bottles it took to make that particular animal (the cover critter takes 6, a larger version 17). Even the stuffing is recycled. “The only thing that is not recycled is the thread and the embroidered eyes,” said Meyer.


Taggies Naturals by Mary Meyer eco friendly plush dolls

Taggies Naturals by Mary Meyer

Meyer told Gifts & Decorative Accessories that chancing on the material was the inspiration for the line. “Our marketing person was walking a craft show and he found a company selling this fabric. It is something I’ve always been personally interested in, leaving a smaller footprint. Plus [the fabric company is] in New Hampshire, just a couple of hours away. A couple of us visited the facility, took a tour, watched how the fabric was made. We were pretty intrigued. We got some sample yardage.”


Miette bunny from Petite Miette Inc. eco-friendly plush dolls

Miette bunny from Petite Miette Inc.

The feel is not quite as soft as much new-materials plush, making it a better choice for older children, tweens, teens, and even dorm décor or adult special occasion gifting, rather than babies and toddlers. In response, Mary Meyer gave the pieces a distinct design sensibility and color palette. Says Meyer, “The design challenge was, how do you make it look different but still cute and cuddly? We purposely went for a more folksy look, like grandma could have made it for you.”

Other companies have offered stuffed animals made from fabric scraps. But there is much more room left for innovation in this area, making re-made plush a likely area for expansion in 2009 and beyond.

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