Until last year, the most fraught question many parents faced when toy shopping was: "Mommy, can I have it? Pleeeaasse?" But after the recalls of millions of toys for safety issues ranging from lead paint to crafts that turned toxic when swallowed, some consumers began wishing playthings came with a label listing their chemical makeup.
Kathy Sebestyen is one of those parents. When she learned that her 4-year-old had been exposed to lead, the Boston mother was baffled. The Sebestyens own a new home, and the school her son attends didn't have any lead problems. But the next week, the recalls for Thomas the Tank Engine trains that contained lead paint were announced. Although there wasn't a proven connection, she threw out the recalled trains and began looking for playthings that were made from natural, nontoxic materials.
She found some that interested her boys, but describes the options as few and the research process as frustrating. "It's very difficult to find any information on these factories or on how they produce these toys," Ms. Sebestyen says.
Still, there are signs that shopping is going to get easier for such environmentally concerned parents. Twenty states have passed legislation to ban four substances from toys: lead, phthalates, Bisphenol A, and cadmium. Congress is also in the process of strengthening the Consumer Product Safety Act to ban lead and phtalates and to mandate that the presence of toxins be disclosed.
Nor are retailers waiting for the federal government to act: Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears have pledged to eliminate polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from their store-brand children's and baby products, and Toys 'R' Us and Wal-Mart have announced that they will not sell baby products that contain phthalates.
At the International Toy Fair in February, green toy companies had lines of retailers waiting to sample their wares. "At last year's Toy Fair, I was literally, if not the only one, one of maybe two or three companies that had green products," says Jill Gaynor, owner of Beyond Learning, educational games made from recycled materials and printed with soy ink. "Last year, people kind of didn't get it. This year, I got a lot of attention from big-box stores."
While the numbers of parents willing to pay a premium for toys that offer peace of mind about their child's safety and the environment are small, they're proving influential with retailers. "There was a light-bulb moment last year when parents and retailers started to say, 'Wait, we should start asking questions,' " says Robert Von Gueden, cofounder of California-based Green Toys, which makes play cook sets and sand pails from recycled milk jugs.
"I think the toy industry has been out to lunch on this whole environmental issue," says Ed Schmults, CEO of F.A.O. Schwartz toy stores. "In the next five years, we'll see a solid move to broader options and more availability."
This isn't to say that the aisles of mass-market toy stores are going to be filled with sustainable wood and organic cotton in the next few months. "The proof is going to be in the toys that show up in the next holiday season," says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which runs healthytoys.org, a website that tests toys for parents.
"If parents are demanding these types of products, the market is going to provide them," says Rob Herriott, director of international relations and regulatory affairs for the Toy Industry Association.
But Mr. Herriott and others say that parents shouldn't worry that they're risking their child's health by buying a plastic action figure. The recalled toys were recalled precisely because they didn't meet US safety standards.
Some environmentalists say that it's premature to herald a permanent change in the shopping habits of US parents. "Most people, I really think they forget about [the recalls]," says Sam Pearson, an environmental activist and mother of two in Lewisburg, Pa.
Ms. Pearson, who studied green building under pioneer William McDonough, believes efforts to eliminate PVCs are positive but says that the fuss over toys misses the point: "We're surrounded by so many toxic materials, that toys are such a small part of it."
But others say that at least consumers are considering the issues. "I do think if anything good comes out of this, it has really forced parents to think," says Mr. Schmults.
Of course, there's still the fun factor to consider: If a toy doesn't have it, all the water-based paint in the world isn't going to make a child play with it. "It's a tough battle," says Sebestyen. "You want to be environmentally conscious and want to buy safe toys. At the same time, [the kids] want Spider-Man."