Sunday, April 19, 2009

Natural and Unnatural Wood - the Greenwashing of Toys

Parents and all consumers are currently being presented with a glut of "environmentally friendly" products. This is a huge growth market, and one that isn't going away (thank goodness!).

The "green", "eco-friendly", and "environmentally friendly" labels that are being batted about are something of a 2-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it is about time that we face the realities of the non-sustainable lifestyle that has driven our society for decades. We have developed a transportation system and infrastructure that is dependent on fuels that are in limited supply. We have used our atmosphere essentially as a garbage can for the refuse of our cheap energy usage, and we are now facing the reality of rapid climate change that threatens almost every aspect of our world. But the cutting side of this sword is that as environmentally friendly products move into the mainstream there will be many claims made that are simply not true. Natural does not necessarily equate with either safe or environmentally friendly.

Toys are a particular hot button in this area, because the lead paint and toy safety recalls of 2007 went a long way to raise consciousness about how environmental concerns are no longer limited just to one political viewpoint - they go right to the heart of health, safety, and our lifestyle. How can parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - all of us who love our children and buy toys for them - sort this out?

An example of this is a well-known national toy retailer chain that released a new line of "green toys" right before Earth Day 2008. Here was their big claim - they are made of "natural wood". Oh wow! How exciting! NATURAL WOOD! That would be as opposed to unnatural wood, which is presumably not environmentally friendly.

BUZZER! Someone ring the "wrong answer" buzzer! I do not dispute that the wood in these products is natural. As I sit here, I can see my yard filled with trees made of all natural wood. Yup, definitely a natural product. For that matter, oil is a natural product! Natural gas is a natural product. It's also true that, in general, "wood" is a product that is replaceable - chop a tree down and another will eventually grow in its place. But there is the fly in this ointment - what happens when that tree is chopped down? And just how long is eventually - just how quickly will that tree be replaced? And what else happens when that tree is harvested? Are there secondary impacts? The answer is, of course, "it depends."

There is lots of wood on the market that is being harvested in a most unsustainable fashion. For example, many tropical woods are harvested in a way that destroys the forest and soil on which they grew. The impacts of this are profound and so long lasting that they are essentially permanent. Not only will those tracts no longer produce trees, but meanwhile many other species decline or go extinct along with this habitat destruction. It's killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But it's not only tropical woods that are potentially a problem. Large tracts of northern forests are also being clear cut in a fashion that prohibits or greatly slows their replacement. These northern forests serve an important role as storage locations for carbon, and therefore an important role in mitigating global warming.

Unfortunately for the consumer, and anyone else who is trying to sort this out, there are no easy answers. The northern pines that are often used for making many products may be harvested and replanted sustainably. And there are tropical woods that are excellent choices. Rubberwood is considered the most environmentally friendly wood on the market today. A member of the maple family, rubberwood is grown on plantations, and its sap used for making rubber. As the trees age, eventually they stop producing sap. Harvesting the trees for their wood at that point means that they are used in every stage of their life. So choosing toys made of rubberwood, such as those by Imagiplay of Boulder, Colorado, is a great choice. PlayFair Toys carries Imagiplay's products in our retail stores, but at this time we do not have them available for sale online.

Bamboo is another good choice. Actually a grass that hardens into a strong wood when dried, bamboo is an environmentally friendly wood primarily because it grows so quickly and therefore replenishes itself. A lovely example of the use of bamboo in toys is the Bamboo Collection Creative, a set of games and activities made of stained bamboo, both lovely to look at as well as educational and pleasing to the touch.

Yet another approach is that used by Blue Orange Games of San Francisco. They pledge to plant two trees for every one that is harvested to make their engaging, creative, all wooden games.

And finally, there is "unnatural wood", which might, in the end, be the friendliest to the environment of all. Sprig Toys of Ft. Collins, Colorado, introduced a new product line in late 2008 that is made of "Sprigwood", which they describe as "a durable, child-safe, bio-composite material made from recycled wood and reclaimed plastic." Reusing two different products to create something new is the kind of innovative thinking required to continue our lives on this planet of ours. I am very excited about Sprig Toys, and as promised last Earth Day, we now have them available online and in our store!

So there you go. PlayFair Toys and Professor PlayFair recommend that you consider unnatural wood as a safe, environmentally friendly alternative for your child's toys.

With that - it's almost Earth Day 2009. Here in Boulder, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the 100% natural trees in my yard are just about ready to burst their buds. Why not do something with your family that will celebrate these ordinary miracles and assure their continuing existence? Plant a tree, walk to the park, turn your garden, and appreciate all that you have.

Professor PlayFair

PS - Drop by PlayFair Toys this week and pick up a free Ecohouse courtesy of Plan Toys, constructed of recycled paper.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Play Notes Now! A Day of Family Music

When: Saturday April 18, 10-3
Where: PlayFair Toys, 2550 Arapahoe Ave, Boulder
Who: Everyone is invited to this FREE event

Don't miss this very special event co-sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts. We'll have games, puzzles, and giveaways all day long, ending with a drawing for 4 FREE TICKETS to see Dan Zanes & Friends at the Boulder Theater, April 25.

Highlights of the day include:
10 AM - Kids guitar demonstration/presentation by James Cline
11 AM – Drumming and drumming circle by Danny Schade
12 PM – Instrument Petting Zoo – meet the orchestra!

This perfectly free event is for all ages. We are thrilled to support the arts in our community. Please show your support for local business and for community arts by dropping by on Saturday!

Free Eco House to the first 50 customers, courtesy of Plan Toys. Thank you, Plan Toys, for providing this free Earth Day activity and for being a model company!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Maybe the best defense really is a good offense

We've all met them - the people who move through life with a "best defense is a good offense" approach. And we all know that they are, well, offensive! You never quite know what these folks will come up with, because their goal in life seems to be keeping the rest of us confused or at the very least at a safe distance from them.

So why this topic? Have I decided to become one of the offensive ones? No - definitely not! But I realized recently that the current economic crisis has put me into a defensive mode. Much of my focus has been on battening down the hatches and defending the territory. And that just isn't going to work, plus it's really dark down there, and I need to see! I realized that taking a defensive posture just won't get me anywhere at all.

I was listening to an interview with Terri Norvell yesterday, and she used the phrase "forward focus." And it struck me that this is where we all need to go.

I do like football, I loved playing and watching sports in high school, so I like these offense versus defense metaphors. And although I'm not saying that any good team doesn't need defense, I also realize that the best you can do by focusing on defense is either to tie the game or win by luck. Without a great offense, to really make the score, we're sunk.

This is where our children are our greatest teachers. Their goals are completely forward focused. The baby longs to make things happen - first to control her arms, then to move, then to walk. They want to go to school, they want to run, to ride a bike. As teens, the things they want to do can scare us a bit, but they so want to become adults. Our children don't spend time looking back or worrying about how maybe it wasn't such a good idea to learn to climb out of the crib at only 8 months old. No - our children are 100% focused on moving forward, on scoring points, on winning the game.

I don't know if a great offense is truly a good defense or not, and I certainly don't advocate being offensive as a posture! But I do know that the snow is melting, the sky is blue, the grass is greening up, and today is the first day of the rest of my life, however long that may be. May it be joyous and filled with good things, those things I want for myself, for those I love, and for this magnificent world we live in. I hope that this post brought you a springtime smile and a desire to look forward to today, tomorrow, and the rest of our glorious lives.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Concert was great!

Madelyn and Ernie's free concert at PlayFair Toys was great! Check out Madelyn's classes and camps at Music with Madelyn.