There is a new secret weapon in the campaign for a stable climate: toys. As our earth warms each year, people experience negative feelings from apathy to panic. Climate change is serious, but doom, gloom, and fear will not attract a critical mass of people to be engaged in the work needed to create a healthy planet. Irish entrepreneur Sharon Keilthy has decided to play the game differently. Her business, Jiminy Eco-Toys, bridges the divide between fun and global warming and shows how it is possible to provide children the toys they need to learn and play while not wasting our earth away.
Rising out of the Dark
Prior to launching her company, Keilthy was not a person to be toyed with, given her high-powered job as a business consultant for McKinsey. She was living a consumption-driven lifestyle, including flying from Ireland to London most weeks for work and going through so much bottled water that her plastic waste could nearly fill up the Irish Sea. Keilthy’s business, Jiminy Eco-Toys, began from an awakening.
In 2014, Keilthy had a child and realized she needed to reconnect with fundamental aspects of life, like valuing the environment. She also was listening and reading more news about environmental issues. In 2018, she learned about Trash is for Tossers and became intrigued in the zero-waste movement. In that same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report raised her awareness that major climate change impacts are coming quickly. She “felt like a widget in the machine” and recognized that she was working in a system that harms the environment. Keilthy realized she needed to change her lifestyle. She followed her epiphany with quick action. She quit her corporate job and signed up for a course on environmental and social justice.
Keilthy decided to take the business route to help reduce human impact on the environment, which is no surprise since Keilthy comes from a family of entrepreneurs and had started a business before. She set up that business which lasted a few years in her early 20s. Since it did not make much money, she cut her losses and joined the consulting world at McKinsey, where she learned a lot about business. As a two-time entrepreneur, she shared that the most significant downside for her is financial insecurity. Nevertheless, it is worth it to fight climate change.
Not so Much Fun in the Sun
The ideation stage of launching a company is like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Keilthy metaphorically boiled a lot spaghetti, and she learned from each dead end. Keilthy observed that consumers will buy products out of convenience, often not considering sustainability. She realized that you cannot expect people to make sustainable decisions, like using bamboo or biodegradable toothbrushes, when those options are less available. She tried to get involved in sustainable toothbrushes but no-one wanted her help.
As she searched for the right idea, her daughter once again changed her life. When mum (as they say in Ireland) and daughter visited a toy store, she was dismayed to realize that everything was made in China and wrapped in plastic, only to be wrapped in more plastic. None of the toys were made locally, and there were no sustainable options. So, Keilthy got to work explore the opportunity to sell sustainable toys and found that there was much more demand and interest behind toys compared to toothbrushes.
Keilthy said toys provide her a practical way to manifest her intention to help the climate. She launched Jiminy Eco-Toys with the commitment to source toys that are carbon neutral, locally-made, and plastic free. The company sells wholesale to retail toy stores and directly to the public.
Jiminy Eco-Toys has a two-fold purpose: (1) to accelerate the transition to more sustainable toys by making eco-friendly toys available to kids and their parents (2) to serve as an example to other companies. She said,
“My vision is an eco-section in every toyshop. I want to do something for the environment. Instead of complaining about how eco-unfriendly toys are, I figured, why not use my business experience and be the toy company I hope the others will become? This is my eco-activism, activism through business.”
Keilthy notices many people are “quite protective of their lifestyles” and do not want to make major changes, but they are open to easy substitutions. Her customers are willing to pay for eco-friendly toys, which are more expensive than most cheap plastic toys. “I do see an encouraging uplift in awareness. But I feel like that’s still amongst a minority of the population. Or maybe there’s a greater awareness, but it’s still really a minority who are willing to take any action.”
Keilthy is worried about climate change, but said, “how I deal with that is I just keep my head down and work on my little piece of the picture. Because right now, I don’t see a higher impact activity I could be doing.” She realizes she could spend years focused on direct activism and achieve nothing, so she is using her business skills to create tangible change.
Recognizing that people are tired between busy lifestyles and the threat of COVID-19, Keilthy is trying to make buying eco-friendly toys more accessible so people can more easily support climate action.
Keilthy says that when people make one sustainable change, their eyes open to the need to make more changes. Suddenly, a community of people will want to take more climate action and will take larger steps, like voting on a carbon tax.
She thinks climate action is shifting in the right direction, just not quickly enough.
Keilthy said there are two salient aspects to an eco-friendly product: (1) it should have a low carbon footprint and (2) it should have a sustainable end of life. A huge determining factor of carbon footprints is whether a toy is made from plants, such as trees, wood, cardboard, or bioplastic (plastic from agricultural waste). Many of these materials are carbon negative since trees remove carbon from the atmosphere prior to being processed. Making petroleum-based products, on the other hand, emits a lot of carbon dioxide. She also aims to reduce the environmental costs associated with transportation, so her company focuses on plant-based toys made in Europe. Since Ireland is a small country, not many toys are made there, so the closest she can get to being local is Europe. She focuses on toys that do not have packaging because that makes them more likely to be recyclable.
While many people think being sustainable involves sacrifice, it can be a lot of fun when you’re talking about sustainable toys! Her company’s most popular toys are giant bubbles, which are wooden with biodegradable cotton ropes and have bottles that are 100% recycled. She says they are magical and turn everyone back into a child. PLAYin CHOC – the company’s eco answer to Kinder Eggs – are also very popular; while at other shops such candies are typically chocolate wrapped in plastic, Jiminy Eco-Toys’ version uses vegan chocolate wrapped in compostable paper and is sourced relatively locally from the United Kingdom. People also love wooden balance boards and little dolls. Soft toys, like teddy bears, pose a challenge since textiles have mostly been moved to other parts of the world where costs are low. Jiminy Eco-Toys sources most toys from Europe but its soft toys still from China for now. However, they are made from 100% recycled plastic bottles and are more affordable than the limited soft toy options in Europe.
Keilthy’s work requires a lot of insight, especially related to product creation and recognizing ways to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and waste from toys.
She says a main difficulty is having to compromise when sourcing merchandise. She said it was important especially at the beginning to have a backbone and focus on the mission rather than making money, which can mean saying no to opportunities, like popular toys that do not meet her company’s standards for sustainability.
For example, puzzles tend to come in plastic bags inside the box. They can be popular, especially during lockdown, but they are not something the company can typically sell. Now, after two years, Jiminy Eco-Toys has been able to source some entirely plastic-free puzzles but is waiting on them. Keilthy says the company makes some exceptions for toys when minimal plastic is used, but it is a slippery slope to determine how much plastic is too much.
Sometimes compromise is involved in order to uphold integrity to the brand. Jiminy Eco-Toys introduced a brand that uses bioplastic and a large toy company in Ireland soon did the same. The larger toy store could sell the toys for cheaper, which hurt Jiminy Eco-Toys. Keilthy said she was first worried about this competition, but she has to keep the mission in mind that the goal is to transform the toy industry rather than just make money. Since she wants her customers to get a good deal on sustainable toys, her company stopped selling the bioplastic toys and redirects her customers to larger toy stores’ websites. While forwarding customers to the competition may be rare in business, Keilthy shows her selfless desire to make a positive impact. She said her ultimate goal is activism, not entrepreneurship.
Beyond the Horizon
Unexpectedly to Keilthy, she gained a base of social media followers who are interested in mitigating climate change. She has begun writing on related topics like carbon footprints or giving away items to people who will use them, inspiring other people to live more sustainably.
Keilthy has big ambitions. She wants to inspire the four biggest toy producers in the word – Mattel, Lego, Hasbro, and MGA – to be more sustainable. She says those companies use a lot of plastic, creating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in addition to environmental impacts from oil exploration and drilling, fracking, oil spills, pipelines, and injustices to native people.
They have made some strides, like reducing plastic for puzzles, but Keilthy says they are not making changes quickly enough. Her company aims to build on those companies’ sustainability efforts and to drive change more quickly. Jiminy Eco-Toys is focused on Ireland, but Keilthy wants to create a global impact.
The company has over 500 eco-toys for babies up to teenagers. She shared that 93% of the toys are entirely plastic-free and the rest have limited plastic, like a piece of Velcro fastener, a huge contrast with typical toy stores with the vast majority of their merchandise using plastic. “The next thing that we need to start doing is to figure out how to influence on a more global level with those huge producers,” she said.
Keilthy knows her business is niche right now but she wants to celebrate when sustainability is mainstream, which requires acceptance that her niche will disappear. She compares it to eco-living stores that sell eco-friendly products like shampoo bars and deodorant sticks; she said we must be supportive when a mainstream retailer like Walmart also starts to sell such products even if it hurts the smaller pioneering stores because it is critical that sustainability becomes mainstream.
Raising her child was the spark of inspiration for Keilthy to be more sustainable, and now, she is raising her company and watching it grow. She puts a lot of effort and care into making sure her business maintains integrity and improves the world.
Going into the future, Keilthy would like to grow her wholesale business and do thinktank activism. She would love to convene leaders from large toy companies to discuss becoming more sustainable and accountable. In 2019, she attended the London Toy Fair and spoke with all 220 exhibitors. Only five exhibitors carried a toy that was both locally-made and plastic-free. “It felt like this industry really is very self-unaware of the whole challenge, the need for radical change. And so I need to find a way to do that, while also still running my business,” she explained.
“The big challenge is to use what I’ve learned by running the retail and wholesale business. And by doing the kind of small-scale communication activism here in Ireland, to use that knowledge and insight to really ramp this up globally, and really make a difference,”
Keilthy recognizes that even if toys are made sustainably, many may never be played with or could end up thrown in the trash. She wants to do more to focus on the end life of toys and changing the culture so that people use what they buy and then redistribute them to more people who will use them
Let’s make fighting climate change fun. How Keilthy plays the game is an inspiring example of getting creative to build a better world.