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Social and ecological risks in the supply chain of toys

What you should take into consideration when purchasing toys

There are two challenges when it comes to toys and sustainability: toxic materials in toys and the inhumane working conditions in toy factories. In part, this has to do with the way this industry is structured and how toys are made, traded and bought. 

Over the past ten years, toy retail revenue has exhibited strong growth. However, the percentage share of toys made in Germany has dropped continuously. In 1990, Germany had an approximately 50 per cent share of the production market, but this figure has now dropped to below 20 per cent. 80 per cent of toys are foreign made, mostly in low-wage countries. This is because, more often than not, toys need to be cheap. 

Municipalities mainly buy toys for daycare centres and schools, for the most part from specialist suppliers whose product range, alongside toys, generally also includes painting and craft supplies, outdoor toys and equipment or furniture.

Further Information

For general information on integrating sustainability into the procurement process, see here.

An online tool to assess the local human rights situation by "Helpdesk Business & Human Rights" is available here.

Municipal best practice examples of sustainable procurements of toys, see here (German only).

Further information on toys (in German):

Supply chain risks of toys in detail

Supply chain in detail

Click on the individual stages in the information graphic on the left to learn more about the ecological and social risks when procuring toys.

01 Extraction

Toys are an extremely heterogeneous product group: Almost 700,000 different toys are sold in Germany. Toys can be made of plastic, metal, wood, cardboard, plush or fabric; some are operated electrically or have electronic components. Key product groups are: construction kits (18 %), games and jigsaws (15 %), toys for infants and pre-schoolers (14 %), dolls (10 %), cars (9 %) and outdoor toys (9 %), as well as plush animals, craft and painting utensils, action figures – and many more besides. ​

The conditions and challenges surrounding the extraction of raw materials for toys are similarly broad and tend to be shaped more by the materials concerned than by the specific branch of industry. To date, their role in the discussion about toy sustainability has only been a minor one.

Environmental risks

  • Textile toys (natural fibres): use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, land use, soil degradation, e.g. due to salinisation, use of genetically modified seed, high water and energy consumption
  • Plastic toys/textile toys (synthetic fibres): use of chemicals and crude oil, high energy consumption
  • Toys made of wood or cardboard/paper: deforestation (illegally in places), threat to species diversity, soil damage, negative impacts on local and global climate 
  • Metal toys/electronic toys: land use, deforestation, use of toxic substances, pollution of soils, lakes and rivers, exploitation of groundwater resources, destruction of biotopes, high energy consumption 

Social risks

  • Textile toys: low wages, irregular income and no social security, inadequate protection against harmful pesticides for workers, child and forced labour 
  • Toys made of wood or cardboard/paper: local (especially indigenous peoples') livelihoods threatened by deforestation and logging, low wages, inadequate safety precautions leading to logging accidents, discrimination and forced labour, corruption 
  • Metal toys/electronic toys: local (especially indigenous peoples') livelihoods threatened, land evictions, conflicts over natural resources, support of armed conflict, poor working conditions, low wages, inadequate safety precautions and accidents, damage to health caused by heavy metal poisoning

02 Production

Price is a key factor, at least for a large share of Germany’s toy retail market. Most toys today are produced in China: In Germany, these account for 45 per cent of imports. In Europe as a whole, the figure is even as high as 80 per cent.

For this reason, the discussion about poor working conditions continues to focus on the situation in China, whose toy industry is located in the south of the country close to Hong Kong and is firmly linked to the system of internal labour migration. So far, other Asian countries have played a much lesser role. Programmes targeting better working conditions also focus on China. However, the trend over the past ten years has started to veer away from China in favour of locations that are closer to the sales markets, especially Eastern Europe. 

Key aspects affecting working conditions in this sector include short product life cycles and market seasonality. Some 60 per cent of toys in any given year are new developments and one in every two toys is marketed for a period of just two years. Furthermore, the market is highly seasonal, with a major focus on Christmas season. For this reason, factories recruit thousands of workers in the peak season (and let them go again afterwards), regularly (and sometimes forcibly) making them work overtime beyond the legal threshold. Any attempts to improve working conditions must therefore always aim to change the purchasing policies of the companies that buy these products. 

Environmental risks

  • Use of problematic plastics (e.g. PVC) and toxic chemicals, such as phthalates (softeners) in plastic components
  • Air, soil and water contamination due to lack of environmental safeguards
  • High energy consumption (China's energy mix is heavily dominated by coal)

Social risks

  • Low wages and delayed payment
  • Excessively long working hours and forced overtime 
  • Precarious employment conditions and no protection against dismissal 
  • Health issues caused by a lack of safety precautions when handling chemicals and machines 
  • Unacceptable conditions in factory living quarters
  • No worker representation

03 Consumption

One key challenge in the consumption phase is ensuring that children can play with a toy without any risk of physical injury or leakage of harmful substances. The Toy Safety Directive regulates the safety standards for toys at the European level. 

And yet, in spite of this, chemicals that can cause cancer, have mutagenic effects or impair human reproductive capacity are still permitted in amounts of up to 1,000 milligrams per kilogramme. The thresholds are disputed, as the risk of permanent damage increases with the number of toxins children are exposed to. Moreover, children are much more sensitive to chemical substances than adults are. On top of this, there are a number of substances and many products used by children that are not covered by the Toy Safety Directive.

The European market demands that toy safety is validated with the CE mark. However, this is not a seal of approval but is affixed to the product by the manufacturers themselves. Gaps in the law, weak controls and the irrelevance of CE marking repeatedly allow children’s items and toys containing dangerous substances to find their way onto the market. At 29 per cent, toys were again the most frequently recalled product group in the European Rapid Alert System (RAPEX) in 2019.

Toys' short product life cycles and fashion dependency, not to mention their widespread overconsumption, create environmental challenges. When purchasing toys therefore, it is important to make sure they are durable and can be repaired and passed on to others after usage. With exchange platforms and flea markets, child daycare centres and schools can be role models and make meaningful contributions.

Environmental risk

  • High volume of waste owing to lack of durability, short product life cycles and overconsumption 

Social risks

  • Harmful substances and small parts pose a risk to health
  • Low play value

04 Recycling & Disposal

Above all else, disposing of toys can be an environmental challenge. Durability and ease of repair are key positive product features; the same applies to long-term, high play value. Toys that meet these criteria are easy to reuse. 

There is virtually no information available on the extent to which it would make technical, economic and environmental sense to recycle the materials used in different types of toys. The more materials a toy contains, the more difficult recycling becomes. There are a few manufacturers that make toys from recycled plastics but only one toymaker worldwide currently has a recycling programme for its products.

Environmental risks

  • Environmental burden from toxic substances when toys, especially electronic toys, are not disposed of correctly
  • Emissions and contamination caused by waste incineration and landfilling

05 Transport

Raw materials extracted in South America, Africa or Australia, components processed or assembled in Asia and products sold in Europe and Germany: This is what a toy industry supply chain might look like. Getting from raw materials extraction to the final product generally involves long transport distances. Fuel consumption and emissions make for environmental and climate impacts that are also harmful to human health.