There are a great many ways in which toys have an impact on the environment, but could the end of gender-stereotyped toy marketing be a helpful factor in the process of preserving our planet? Tricia Lowther looks at the connections between boy/girl toy marketing and environmental responsibility.
There are many reasons why toys are a huge problem for the planet. Around 90% of toys are made of plastic, in a billion-dollar market that keeps growing. 75% of the world’s toys are made in China which means huge distances travelled, and air pollution issues. Then there’s wasteful packaging, batteries, and the billions of flimsy, easily-broken items that will be thrown away almost immediately, yet outlive us all (there is no ‘away’). This unsustainable overconsumption needs to end.
The overlapping issues between overconsumption, sustainability, and gender stereotypes become clear when we look at the three ‘R’s of the green movement: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
Reduce Reuse Recycle
All three of these are less likely to happen when people buy into the idea of separate toys for girls and boys.
Boy/girl marketing is about profit. Toy manufacturers use gender to sell more versions of the same toy, with products aimed at girls often costing more than the equivalent boys’ product. If you need different items for your son and your daughter, then you are likely to need more things than if they were same-sex siblings.
As well as more toys being bought in a gender-segmented market, those toys are likely to get less use. It’s harder for girls and boys to share toys if they believe, or their families believe, that girls and boys have different interests.
The same goes for passing toys, clothes and books on from one sibling to the next, which saves money and resources. It’s harder to do if those clothes and toys are heavily gendered. How many parents would hand down an Adventure Stories for Boys book to a younger sister, or a pink princess bike to a little brother?
Of course, items can be passed on to family, friends or charity shops, but lots of people will throw away what could otherwise have been reused. Many charity shops don’t accept toys anyway. They are already inundated with them.
It’s interesting to note that an image search for ‘sustainable toys’ brings up a multi-coloured range of gender-inclusive toys, rather than the sea of of pink and blue that faces customers of large chain toy stores.
But beyond the toys themselves, could pink and blue, and the associated gender assumptions influence attitudes to the environment, and eco-friendly behaviour?
Going green and masculinity
When children are exposed to gender stereotypes, they learn that being a girl and being a boy mean different sets of behaviours and attitudes.
Let Toys Be Toys’ 2015 research into the words used in toy adverts highlighted the difference in how boys and girls are targeted. Gendered marketing would have us believe that flowers, fluffy animals and beautiful images are for girls. Girls are expected to care. Sure, boys get creepy crawlies and slugs. They get fierce creatures and they get to explore. But words like evil, shooting, power, and control, suggest that rather than love and care for nature, they’re expected to be as fierce as those wild animals and conquer it. While boys blast, launch, battle and boom their way through the world, caring is left for the girls. That would seem to include caring about nature and the environment.
There is a green gender gap. As a group, men are not as environmentally friendly as women. One study that tried to uncover the reasons for this, discovered that people perceive green issues as feminine.
It seems that men, often subconsciously, resist being eco-friendly in order to protect their manliness.
This suggests that when boys are expected to identify with mainstream ideas about masculinity, they learn to shun eco-friendly behaviour. For a more compassionate and sustainable future, part of the answer may lie in doing away with the stereotypes – we need to see more boys with butterflies.
Play that doesn’t cost the earth
There are all sorts of ideas out there for a more environmentally friendly childhood – buy less, buy used toys, borrow from toy libraries, look for locally produced items made from sustainable materials. The culture of buying cheap throwaway toys needs to change, with the impact of production, and potential long term usage being taken into account. Many of the businesses on Let Toys Be Toys’ recommended retailers list, as well as being gender-inclusive, specialise in sustainable, ethically produced toys.
And we need to reassure our boys that it’s cool to care. We can’t afford for half the population to hold back on environmental action out of embarrassment.
When it comes to children, toys and toy marketing, we need to throw out the old ideas and come up with new ones, that don’t cost the earth.