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It’s Not Easy Being Green

I have an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment this week. I have actually cleaned out my email inbox (last time it was clean was March), gotten 20 items off of my To Do list and now I am actually writing about how we are sustainable, as I promised three weeks ago. Preserve this day in amber, I’m pretty sure it will be another 9 months before this happens again.

Other riveting questions you will get answered here: Why aren’t there men with the Eco-trucks? AND why do our characters have no faces? It is all part of the eco thing, as you will soon see.

I remember interviewing with Sprig oh-so-long-ago and thinking WOW, this is really cool. Why aren’t more people making product sustainably? Well, now I know. It isn’t easy being green! We try on many levels to be green, from our product and package development to our supply chain & employee programs, but all come with challenges.

Let’s start with product…
First of all, our product is made with Sprigwood, a bio-composite we helped develop made from recycled plastics (usually polypropylene) and reclaimed wood. The wood flour is untreated pine mostly used as a filler for cattle feed. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate feeding our toys to cows when you’re done playing with them but the possibility is there. A lot of Eco-friendly companies who are using recycled materials are using just plastics, we just happen to believe that we want to use as little plastic as we can; the use of wood flour off-sets the amount of recycled plastic we are using. Using this material isn’t without its challenges. The presence of the wood is actually like a flaw in the plastic (at least that is what Owen, our engineering guru, tells me), making for some very tricky engineering/design challenges.

The main reason for no faces is not due to a coprophobia but rather our commitment to no paint, which I will discuss a bit later in this post. At one time, we tried facial features (giving our Adventure Guides a bit of a resemblance to Larry the Cucumber, which might be cute on Larry, but didn’t work for the guides so much) but there is a limitation to what we can do given our materials and another toy industry constraint: testing requirements. We have to make sure our toys pass a drop test; small protruding bits are less likely to pass this requirement as they tend to generate small parts after the drop. The good side to the whole no faces thing for us though: no faces allows your child’s imagination to run freely. The character can be happy or sad, cranky or silly. The presence of a face isn’t a limiter to the types of adventures he/she can have. Go imaginations, run free!

Next, our products are never, ever painted. Too many of the toy recalls we have seen in the past have come from lead paint. We have a commitment to our littlest customers as well as to the environment they will live in… so we just don’t want to risk using paint. Instead, we use non-toxic colorants which are mixed in with the Sprigwood. We currently work to exceed existing US standards so we can meet even the more rigorous ones of customers like Pottery Barn Kids and, most importantly, parents. This introduces another design challenge how to keep the toys interesting without the easy fallback of adding features with paint. Needless to say, our designers and engineers are up to that challenge. Our most popular question from customers: where are the men for the Eco-trucks? Well, our Czech partner offered one, but he was a painted figure. We elected not to go this route, but hope to develop our own driver in the future… one that meets our no-paint commitment.

Challenges: We definitely realize that our products are down-cycling and we would love for them to be fully recyclable or ‘cradle to cradle’ (http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm). We are looking all the time at how we make Sprigwood better or what the next great material might be. We have looked at some of the new bio-plastics that are supposed to be compostible; they just look to be a bit early in development yet before we can seriously consider them. Because many of our products are played with outside or in the tub, we want to make sure the toy life can withstand the rigors of child play in all environments. We can only imagine the heartbreak caused by a toy left to overwinter in a sandbox… only to be discovered in the Spring to have composted! If you have heard of a cool new material you think we should consider, let us know!

There will be more posts on this subject in the future, but I have had another bug in my ear lately about great customer service and how companies can maintain great service levels as they grow. Candace of http://www.sugarmamabakingco.wordpress.com brought the subject to the fore this week on twitter and it is one I definitely want to blog about. But I promise I will get back to the green thing soon!

As always, let me know what you think… Leave a comment or tweet me: @kimatsprig.

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