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Is Mattel, the World's Largest Toy Company, Playing Responsibly?

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Leadership & Transparency
If you’re a parent or just a kid at heart who just loves to play with old toys, you probably have at home at least one or two of Mattel’s products. It can be a Barbie doll, a Fisher Price game, Thomas the Tank Engine, Hot Wheels cars or any other fun product Mattel is selling. As the world’s largest toy company, Mattel has access to almost every house in the (developed) world which gives it a lot of power compared to many other companies. Does Mattel use this power responsibly? In a newly published citizenship report, Mattel provides some answers. Titled We Believe Play Matters, this report highlights Mattel’s commitment to operating as a responsible member of the global business community.” It is very detailed and includes a lot of interesting information on the different initiatives the company is involved with, from reducing the overall impact of its products and operations on the environment to investing in strategic philanthropic partnerships. In some areas the company is moving forward faster than others – for example, the company came up with an ambitious goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2020 and increase the amount of sustainable sourced material and paper in its packaging by 85 percent by 2015. On the other hand, it pledges to achieve only $25 million in sales of products that “incorporate an environmental enhancement gained through innovation.” To learn more about the company’s journey, I got in touch with Alan Hilowitz, Mattel company spokesperson. Triple Pundit: Looking at the report, what is the achievement Mattel is most proud of? Alan Hilowitz: We are proud overall of the great progress we have made in key areas of the business. However, there are two achievements that stand out: the first would be setting measurable goals for sustainability, social impact and diversity for the first time publicly. The launch of our sustainability goals, for example, will help sharpen our efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our internal operations. The second achievement is publishing our first web-based version of the report, which helps to bring our stories and values to life in a more meaningful way for our stakeholders, customers and consumers. 3p: Which part of the efforts you report on is the most challenging one? AH: While social compliance can be a challenge to any manufacturer, we are particularly proud of our progress since we first reported on our Global Manufacturing Principles back in 2004.  For many years, we’ve been seeking ways to effectively communicate our progress and how we are solving the issues we face in this area.  In the 2012 report, we share for the very first time videos from inside our manufacturing facilities. Mattel has a unique competitive advantage in the toy industry in that we own and operate manufacturing facilities that produce about 50 percent of our products.  Obviously, we have proprietary concerns around processes and IP, but with these videos, we are able to be more transparent and give consumers an inside look. 3p: One of your goals is to "achieve $25 million in sales of products that incorporate an environmental enhancement gained through innovation." Isn't that a bit low for a company with over $2 billion in sales? AH: The first step is being able to put an achievable stake in the ground. We realized when developing our strategy and targets the importance of aligning sustainability with our business, which is why we included a sales-related goal. As with all of the goals, we will be demonstrating progress and refining as we go to ensure that it remains aspirational and a driver of change. 3p: You conducted a life cycle analysis across the four pillars, which allowed you "to create a clear picture of Mattel’s greatest environmental impacts." Can you elaborate on where your greatest environmental impacts throughout the value chain are?  AH: I wanted to clarify that Mattel conducted an Enterprise Life Cycle Assessment (E-LCA) as one part of the four key pillars that were analyzed in order for us to set our sustainability goals. The results of our E-LCA indicated that core materials from packaging and product, as well as energy usage, were the main drivers of our environmental impact. These impacts were then assessed in our business feasibility study and incorporated into our goals and targets. 3p: Finally, from a stakeholder engagement perspective - do you think of using your products and the power of your brand to promote values you find important like sustainability among your customers (for example eco-friendly messages on the toys, increasing the awareness to recycling, eco-themed toys, etc.)? AH: As the world's largest toymaker, Mattel produces some of the best-loved and time-tested toys and juvenile products available. With this comes a responsibility and high expectations for safe, high-quality and innovative toys created in a responsible manner. We believe that transparency improves performance and builds trust, and feel it's important to share our values and how we are making progress in key areas, like sustainability and responsible operations. We utilize reports like this, and the videos showcased in conjunction with the web-version report to help communicate our sustainability efforts to customers and consumers. [Image credit: Mattel] Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.