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Paper (&) Tigers: The Trouble with Barbie’s New Commitment to “Sustainable Sourcing”

What should we make of Mattel's October 5, 2011 announcement of new "sustainable sourcing" principles for its paper toy packaging? The move came after a highly-publicized Greenpeace campaign featuring Ken and Barbie “breakup” videos on the internet and huge banners draped from Mattel's Los Angeles headquarters declaring, “Barbie: It’s Over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.”

Greenpeace banner on Mattel HQ, June 2011 (Greenpeace)

The principles commit Mattel to some significant concrete steps.

Under Mattel's new policy, 70% of its paper packaging will be harvested sustainably or recycled by the end of 2011, rising to 85% in 2015, with preference for paper certified under the Forest Stewardship Council program for sustainable forestry certification.  The company has also directed all its suppliers to exit known controversial sources of paper fibre. It has committed to avoid such sources in the future by ensuring that fibre sources are known and traced throughout the supply chain, fibre is harvested in compliance with local laws, and is not harvested from old-growth forests, from forests recently converted to timber plantations, or in ways that violate internationally recognized indigenous rights.

Like most voluntary corporate codes of conduct, the principles are couched in qualifiers like “where possible” and “to the extent feasible”, and do not provide for independent third-party verification. But they are not mere window-dressing. They commit Mattel to some significant concrete steps, including to establish specific goals, report publicly on progress, and adopt procedures to ensure that its procurement practices actually reflect the principles.  They also require Mattel to support “multi-stakeholder” efforts to protect global forest resources and give preference to fibre certified under schemes that “exhibit the highest standards and robust audit processes.”

While the principles do not spell out which programs this language is intended to mean, most people familiar with forestry certification would read it as referring implicitly to the FSC, with its innovative tri-cameral structure (environmental, social and economic chambers, each split further into global North and South sub-chambers), as opposed to its mainly industry-driven counterparts such as the big forestry companies’ favoured American Forest & Paper Association’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management program, and the small woodlot owners’ favoured Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

Sumatran tigers (WWF)

Greenpeace claims that the new policy will help the endangered Sumatran tiger by preventing Mattel from sourcing paper from companies like Jakarta-based Asia Pulp and Paper, which Greenpeace alleges is a major contributor to deforestation in the tiger’s rapidly shrinking Indonesian rain forest habitat—and which, incidentally, has been buying up Canadian forest industry operations at a rapid pace.

At one level, this is a victory for environmentally responsible business. Mattel is the largest toy maker in the world, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in play.” Its procurement practices have a significant impact on the behaviour of suppliers around the world and send a strong signal to other global toy brands like Disney and Hasbro. If Mattel goes “sustainable,” others will likely follow. Its new procurement practices will make business more difficult for some of its more ecologically destructive suppliers, and reward those that are less destructive. In the long run, if extended throughout the industry, they might help ease the seemingly relentless pressure on tropical rainforests and Sumatran tiger habitat.

Let’s face it: The Sumatran tiger will not be saved by buying Barbies packaged in sustainably harvested paper.

But will Mattel’s new principles reduce the number of Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher Price toys purchased by and for the children of the world? Far from it. You can bet Mattel hopes they have the opposite effect, boosting sales by easing the consciences of consumers who fancy themselves environmentally responsible.

Let’s face it: The Sumatran tiger will not be saved by buying Barbies packaged in sustainably harvested paper. If Mattel and the other big toy brands stop sourcing paper products from tropical rainforests, less scrupulous players—companies not as susceptible to public shaming—will take up the slack. Tropical deforestation, like other ecological crises, will not be reversed unless we confront humanity’s insatiable and constantly growing appetite for material consumption, especially in the already affluent industrialized countries like Canada.

I have two school-age children. After reading the Mattel announcement, I thought I would count the toys in their rooms. I lost track around two hundred. Then I tried to imagine all the old toys we have discarded or given away, a pile that would dwarf those we currently have. A pile made largely of plastics that take millennia to break down in the environment. And how many of these toys do our children play with more than once, twice, a dozen times?

Instead of saying “I want a toy in sustainable packaging,” consider saying “I don’t need another toy just now.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love toys, and they can be crucial for children’s intellectual, emotional and other development. But how many does one child need? I’m not suggesting that all a child needs for a full play life is a stick and a mud puddle, although those ingredients can fill entire childhood afternoons. What I am suggesting is that the next time you think about buying yet another toy, instead of saying “I want a toy in sustainable packaging,” consider saying “I don’t need another toy just now.” If hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people choose not to buy that next toy, encouraging children instead to create and explore interior and exterior worlds of play with their own minds and bodies using the materials around them, not only will we help reduce the pressure on species and ecosystems, we will help raise generations of stewards eager to protect them.

I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on Greenpeace or Mattel. Initiatives like Mattel’s sustainable sourcing policy are victories of a sort. With Greenpeace turning forty this year, it is worth reflecting what kind of victories its often dramatic direct action campaigns achieve. Their greatest significance, as Greenpeace asserts in a fortieth birthday pamphlet that just arrived in the mail, is to create “the possibility of another future” by shining a spotlight on environmentally and socially unsustainable business practices. “Sustainable sourcing” is one small step toward such a future. Buying less, and creating more with our own imaginations and hands, would be a larger and more rewarding one.