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Natural Toy Story

Posted: February 26, 2014, 3:30 p.m. EDT


Consumers seek nontoxic, eco-friendly and sustainably manufactured toys from trustworthy sources.

By Lizett Bond

Some consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of product labels that include such verbiage as "Made in the USA,” "organic” and "all natural,” and all that those words promise. However, that consciousness stretches beyond food ingredient choices for themselves and their pets; even materials used for children’s toys are scrutinized. It’s only natural that this awareness also extends to pets’ playthings.

"Nowadays, it is pretty rare to meet a customer who does not recognize the added value of a ‘certified organic,’ ‘organic’ or ‘all-natural’ pet toy versus a regular toy,” said Pascal Bedard, president of From the Field, a manufacturer in Rainier, Wash.

For these reasons, according to Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for Planet Dog in Westbrook, Maine, consumers are seeking safe, healthful, nontoxic products from companies they trust.

"Natural toys impact the health and safety of every member of the household and are better for the environment,” she noted.

Bedard added that the all-natural movement has gone beyond the "trend” classification in the pet toy market.

"When From the Field began in 2004, our products were selling mainly in specialized, independent, natural pet stores,” he said. "Now we are seeing sales increases in all different types of pet supply stores, including feed stores, boutiques, large warehouse pet stores and small chains.”

Safety First
Because pets are beloved family members, pet owners are focused on extending and adding quality to the lives of those pets, said Mary Wolff, founder and president of Honest Pet Products in Green Bay, Wis. A key focus in the toy segment is safety.

Natural Toys
Pet owners find it important to give their pets naturally manufactured toys. Shutterstock

"Safety, safety, safety,” she said. "That has to include the safety of the toys pets play with.”

Safety is the main reason for an increased demand for natural products, said Spencer Williams, owner and president of West Paw Design in Bozeman, Mont.

"Toys that are sustainably produced and made with natural fabrics and fill tend to be safer,” he said.

Sourcing Second
Beyond durability and safety, customers are seeking environmentally friendly products made of natural, organic or recyclable materials, Williams added. Moreover, consumers are calling for materials sourced in a reputable way.

"Customers are more specific with their questions,” said Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif.

According to Grow, pet owners are growing increasingly concerned about products composed of rubber and plastic, and are instead seeking domestically manufactured toys.

"More and more, customers seem to be demanding that the country of origin be listed on toys,” said Kirbay Preuss, customer relations manager/dog cat specialist for Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. "In particular, they want products made in the USA.”

This demand is based on a perception that foreign products might be comprised of less natural fabrics, dyes and materials, Preuss continued. She added that pet food recalls have created a hypersensitivity to toy materials as well as pet food ingredients.

"We are seeing an increased trend with regard to label checking and overall knowledge regarding where the product came from,” said Preuss.

Vegetable dyes are preferred, as are more natural, untreated, unbleached and nontoxic toys, Grow added.

Planet Dog’s Smith agreed that this awareness and sensitivity includes toys.

"Consumers recognize that there is no regulation in the pet industry, and they see frequent recalls of tainted products,” she said.

Eco-friendly Earns Points
From the Field manufactures only Made-in-the-USA, earth-friendly, safe and durable cat toys using biodegradable materials, Bedard said.

Items made from renewable and natural materials, such as hemp, bamboo, and recycled and recyclable plastics are also sought after, Smith noted.

"For instance, our Orbee-Tuff ball-tosser, called the Woodchuck, is made from sustainable bamboo and recycled cork, and can be sold with or without the Orbee-Tuff RecycleBall, which is made from leftover manufacturing scraps and recycled Orbee-Tuff material,” she said.

Every toy produced by West Paw Design is sustainably made in Bozeman, Williams said. In addition, stuffed toys and beds are filled with IntelliLoft fiber or batting, which is made from recycled plastic bottles.

Smith said that Planet Dog’s Orbee-Tuff toys, comprising 40 percent of the Planet Dog line, are manufactured in the USA using recyclable materials, and when a dog is ready for a new toy, the old toy can be returned for recycling. Additionally, during the manufacturing process, excess materials are collected to be ground for the Planet Dog Recycle Line, resulting in a waste-free manufacturing process, according to Smith.

Many consumers are taking these requirements one step further to include products that are ethically made with fair wages, said Dave Colella, co-owner of Earthdog in Brentwood, Tenn.

Manufacturers are listening to consumer demands. In fall 2013, West Paw Design introduced its Eco Hemp toys in three hand-sewn, dog-friendly designs featuring earth-friendly hemp.

As a durable fabric, hemp is also antimicrobial, according to Williams.

"The hemp fiber literally obstructs odor-causing bacteria,” he added.

Because hemp cannot be grown in the United States, West Paw Design sources its hemp from an organic farm in China, Williams said.

"We figure it’s better to support this eco-friendly agricultural product in hopes of creating a demand so someday it can be produced by American farmers,” he added.

Since Earthdog began manufacturing toys out of 100 percent hemp rope in 1997, the perception of this material has changed significantly, Colella said. However, he added that the company’s toys have not deviated from its original 100 percent hemp rope toys, in two- and three-knot versions.

"We have found that dogs are pretty much universally drawn to the natural, earthy scent of the hemp rope,” Colella added.

From the Field’s dog and cat toys also are made with hemp fabric and hemp rope/twine, combining eco-friendliness with durability and safety.

"Hemp fabric is four times stronger than cotton fabrics,” Bedard said. "We also use only natural vegetable dye to dye our fabric.”

In addition, the company offers a Catnip Spray Rejuvenator to promote cat toy reusability.

Showing Them Off
When marketing these toys, Planet Dog’s Smith suggested using natural displays to catch the consumer’s eye.

"Wooden display stands, farm baskets, bamboo baskets and bins draw the consumer’s eye,” she said.

Signage calling out a natural section will help the consumer to notice those items easily and immediately.

Retailers featuring natural and/or eco-friendly products near the front of the store will instantly alert the consumer that there is a selection of natural products to choose from, Smith added.

In doing so, the retailer can fulfill the needs of the growing base of eco-conscious and pet-health-conscious customers, Bedard said.

"The key to marketing natural toys for retailers lies in a dialogue with the consumer about what their dollars are supporting when they purchase these items, as opposed to synthetics, which may cost less but pollute the environment in their production and introduce toxins to the pets,” said Earthdog’s Colella.

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