Occasionally we profile companies we love here on Ecopreneurist. Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Kosin Virapornsawan, current business development director of PlanToys, a sustainable toy manufacturer.
Sustainable Way, Sustainable Play: PlanToys Company Profile and History
“When they started the company (Plant Group),” said Virapornsawan, “the first investors had an architecture background. After they started the founders really wanted to do something really good—they wanted to help kids—to educate them, to get them excited about sustainability. They used their design background to develop toys.”
According to Virapornsawan, PlanToys was the global pioneer in reclaiming and repurposing rubber wood. Rubber trees are a renewable resource, but after 5 years, the rubber trees are done producing latex products. The PlanToys’ founders saw that usually those trees got cut down and burned. Given their design background and interest in sustainability, they came up with the idea to create products from this wood. Toys are a perfect use for the wood, since it doesn’t have to be structural and support weight (as it would in construction or other durable goods like benches).
They then worked with a local university in Thailand to figure out how to dry the wood using a chemical-free kiln process. They had to commit to educating the market on this, because people were not thinking about chemicals in toys when they started (whereas now, concerned parents the world over are starting to realize just how much chemical goop is in the toys they buy for their children). This non-toxic nature would become a tremendous competitive advantage in the years to come.
Similarly, no one considered the rubber wood as a great renewable resource. When they started, it was free, since otherwise the farmers had to cut it down, prepare it, and burn it. Now it’s $40-50 per tree, so they’ve created a market for wood products that didn’t exist before, and are thus helping farmers make a living.
The company also uses water based colors, recyclable cardboard packaging and soy based printing materials. Here’s a video about the company. Note that even the shreds of wood leftover after the manufacturing process are not wasted!
They then even started reclaiming all the sawdust and combined it with the non-toxic dyes, and then compress/mold it into something they call “planwood”. This planwood materials is durable and water resistant — so the company created water toys.
Going the extra mile
Plantoys manufacturing is structured under the stringent ISO 9001 and 14001 standards, and OHSAS compliant, with solar producing all the electricity for their factory in Thailand. PlanToys also adheres to SA 8000 — the EU standard for social responsibility and social Accountability. It is more strict than some of the Thai labor law. In Thailand, they’re allowed to do 16 hrs extra per week for Full-Time workers, but the EU standard is much stricter—8 hours. For a country in the developing world, this is going way beyond the norm.
But despite all their hard work to be more sustainable, they still had waste—the leftover branches and such from the trees were still being burned. So they decided to do a biomass power plant — the first in Thailand to use gasification. They burn the wood from the branches, roots and other less desirable wood parts, and inject oxygen into the oven, and use the gas to run the oven used in their manufacturing. This also produces 5000 kWh. Their factory needs only 500 kWh, so the extra energy is sold back to the local government.
The company has also developed what it refers to as “Sustainable Mind”—they worked with a lot of children in Thailand that had special needs, including cerebral Palsy, autism, and blindness or other visual impairments. They then developed toys very specifically for those groups, and give a lot of those toys away to parents of children with special needs.
They’ve been working in reforesting degraded land for 20 years, and regularly conduct beach cleanups, with a competition where they reward school groups with toys for helping clean up the environment. They are also working with a local university in Thailand to do LCA on their toys. They have finished doing it on one toy, their best-selling item, the dancing alligator. It took almost 2 years, and it’s just a Gate to Gate LCA. They actually fix more carbon than they release—they are carbon negative.
For companies to go this far in their sustainability journeys obviously has benefits like consumer loyalty, brand awareness (after all, you’re reading this article right now!), employee engagement, high penetration into niche markets, and the like, it also comes with costs. So I had to ask Kosin when the company really broke through to become one of the biggest sustainable / healthy toy manufacturers in the world today.
According to Virapornsawan, the big turning point for PlanToys might have come when Mattel had a huge lead paint recall on toys made in China. “It got everyone’s attention with regard to what was in their children’s toys—that this was connected to global issues like climate change. “
They do specialty toys—they cannot do the mass market stuff like Wal-Mart and Target. Sanding the wood, dyeing it, etc. takes a lot of time. But the Mattel recall gave them a huge boost in revenue, and a lot of attention from small and mid-sized retailers looking to curate a better product offering for their customers than the big box stores could offer.
Alligators that Dance
When I asked Virapornsawan what their top product was, he replied without hesitation the Dancing Alligator.
They have 2 versions of the dancing alligator—one with real wood, one with the sawdust material (planwood). Production time is much shorter for the planwood, and thus the retail costs is a bit less ($25 for the real wood alligator, $20 for the planwood).
What’s next for Plantoys
PlanToys is currently distributing to almost 70 countries, mostly the US and the EU, which are similar in terms of distribution channels.
But they’re thinking way outside the box for what’s next. Their biggest goal on the horizon is introducing not a toy, but learning tools for kids … desk and chair, bird feeders, art boards, toy chest. With these products, they want to get kids out into nature, and exposing them to wildlife, etc., because, according to Virapornsawan, “we want to educate kids, because kids can then grow up to be more eco-friendly in their lives”.
This lineup of eco-friendly educational toys that get kids outside can be found here.
Check out PlanToys blocks, which you can dye with watercolors, from Crafting a Green World