Last week, Tiffany at Simply Modern Mom wrote a little letter to toy companies listing some of her top toy pet peeves. I think we can all relate to that! You can read her complete list here. As a toy designer who’s worked for some of those companies, I still understand – and agree – with her points. But since I’ve seen both sides, would you let me play devil’s advocate for a moment?
Tiffany says: Safety. I know it is cheaper to manufacture it in China. Can’t you improve your safety checks and maybe even exceed the safety requirements set forth by our government?
Toy safety is a wormhole of a problem. In my experience with third party manufacturing in Asia, American companies are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of their toys. There are very long contracts, procedures, and requirements put in place that both parties agree to, sign on the dotted line, etc. There are repeated inspections and factory tours conducted by the American company, and objective third-party safety testing facilities. Every toy in production must first past stringent safety tests from third-party labs – and often the toys have been redesigned and reworked several times in order to pass those tests (including paint and plastic contents, drop tests, choking hazards, strangulation, etc. etc.). American offices are working very hard to ensure the safety of their toys.
Chinese toys are in many ways, handmade, because in many parts of the process they’re handled by human hands (and handmade includes the possibility of human error) My experience with toy safety stems mostly from my time at a smaller independent toy company. I’ve visited the factories we worked with. I believe the name brand plush toys you have around your house are handmade. The patterns are cut by a person, they’re sewn on sewing machines by a person, hand-closed and finished by another person inspected for safety issues both by hand and with the aid of machinery. These factories don’t look like the slick robotics in the auto ads on TV. Toy factories are clean and efficient, but filled with human labor.
There are also very different cultural business models at work in China. I know former coworkers who could explain it more clearly to you than I can. But from my experience, it’s not the American toy company that’s trying to consciously pull the wool over your eyes. It’s a complicated combination of Chinese business arrangements, lesser known third-party manufacturers selling their raw materials (paints, plastics, etc.) to the main factories, and the constant push for a new and better way to produce goods (every improvement is also an opportunity for a flaw). I have seen Amercian companies pushing a factory too hard, ot pushing timelines beyond reasonable limits without realizing it, or pushing a new manufacturing process beyond the factory’s capabilities without knowing it, etc. Factories need the business, and they’ll bend over backwards to get it. That combination can lead to errors.
Also, there’s a downside to the current push for stricter and more frequent safety testing: For some of the toy companies we love – outside of the large conglomerates like Hasbro or Mattel – the cost to add safety testing beyond what they’re currently doing (which I actually believe is a good system) will mean a skyrocket in the cost of the toys you buy. The cost of safety testing isn’t cheap. And as we know when we look at eco-conscious toys, the materials aren’t cheap either. I’m all for the higher quality, but it means we, as consumers, need to be willing to pay more for the quality we want. It seems we’re all in a slippery slope of wanting the best, but not wanting to pay any more for it.
Tiffany says: Consider the message you are conveying. Do you need to have toys with half dressed Bratz and other toys that hint at disrespect to themselves and others, even their bodies?
Believe me, I don’t like Bratz, and I won’t be buying them for my daughter, but I think I understand how they ended up in the stores. I remember the first time I saw a Bratz Doll. I was a full-time in-house toy designer, with no kids. I thought how completely cool and utterly original, though I also knew immediately that they were horribly wrong for little girls. But as a designer, I loved their look. I think we all know who buys toys – it’s the parents, grandparents, aunts, etc. The adults. Unfortunately toy manufacturers are playing on our interests at the same time as our kids. When I’m designing toys, there are moments when I’ve designed with me in mind as much as the kids who will play with it. More importantly? A precedence has been set. I remember designing Baby Stella, and running into several opinions that she had to be dressed in pink. Why? Because all baby dolls were dressed in pink, so that must be what buyers and consumers want. I think toy companies frequently fall into that trap: creating toys that don’t improve or better our options, but fit what we already expect. Barbie has been around for far too long – and was created in an era when body image wasn’t questioned. So, though I hate it, we’re stuck with the repercussions.
I’ve probably given you a bit more than my two cents today. I’m certainly not trying to convert anyone to buying cheap plastic toys – I don’t do it much myself. But it is an issue with lots of meat, and I thought it’d be helpful to know a little more about why things are the way they are. I’m dying to know, did you find this info useful? What questions would you ask of your favorite (or LEAST favorite) toy company?