I reached out to my inner child and decided to review the sustainability of the company that owns a girl’s favourite doll, the Barbie. As part of our goal to drive sustainability, we must always remember to teach children about this way of life and hold companies that produce toys and entertainment for kids accountable. Mattel claims to be committed to protecting the planet by raising awareness about environmental challenges and inspiring kids to take positive action.
This claim is written boldly on their website, and I dug deeper to find out if they were keeping true to what they declared. While the brand is quite known for their awareness and contribution to community development, there are many loopholes in their manufacturing and supply chain, thereby highlighting the need for more transparency and more focus.
The production of toys has had a great impact on the environment. Barbie's torso, bend-leg armature, outer legs, head, and eyes are all made of plastic. Her arms are made of EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate), her head is made of a hard vinyl compound, and her eyes are developmental water-based spray paint systems from an unnamed supplier.
Due to its low cost and good performance, PVC is a polymer that is used everywhere. It can be utilized to create a variety of products with short or long shelf lives, like the Barbie doll. One of the thermoplastic materials that is utilized the most is PVC. Due to the fact that it is plastic, it is typically merely tossed in landfills. There is, however, a method that is better for the environment. PVC can be recycled through a series of processing steps to produce "secondary materials or energy," aiding in the effort to reduce the amount of waste dumped in landfills. Even though PVC trash is only partially recycled globally, it helps to reuse this material by recycling it and combining it into new products like bottles and pipes. This is the method Mattel claims to use to incorporate recycled plastic in their Barbie dolls. My issue was with the lack of transparency on the exact materials used to make the doll. Mattel hasn’t provided any exact list of materials used in the manufacture of the Barbie Doll. The only things I could really find were some of the early materials used to make Barbie's clothing and some of the plastics that went into building her body. It was probably safe to believe that Mattel withheld information about all of the materials used to make Barbie in order to hinder the production of successful knockoffs.
The reason they are able to get one planet is that in more recent Barbie Dolls, 100% recycled plastics are being used in their production, consequently teaching kids that something beautiful can come out of something old.
Most raw materials used to manufacture Barbie are imported from other countries, such as Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. For example, there is a lot of embodied energy involved in how petroleum oil is drilled in Saudi Arabia and refined into ethylene. It is then sold and imported to Taiwan’s Formosa Plastic Corporation, the world’s largest producer of Polyvinyl Chloride, PVC. Formosa Plastics converts the ethylene into PVC pellets, which will later be the flexible plastic that Barbie’s body is made of. Barbie dolls were initially produced by Mattel in Japan, but when labor prices increased, Mattel looked for other nations where toy manufacturing was considerably less expensive. Japan provided the synthetic fiber and nylon used to make Barbie's hair. Elastomers, a substance that provides plastics like vinyl their capacity to be more flexible, are made from ethylene and chlorine.
A total of 188 grams of raw and processed materials were utilized to make one Barbie doll at the end of the manufacturing phase of the "life cycle" process. The lifespan of this product is predicted to be up to three years. Barbie from Mattel is produced using an overall manufacturing process that consumes up to 101,830,000 Joules. If you take a closer look, manufacturing accounts for 85% of the total embodied energy throughout the life cycle.
In 2020, Greenpeace members scaled the side of Mattel’s Los Angeles headquarters to hang an enormous banner, including a caption and a frowning Ken doll. Greenpeace officially launched a campaign against Mattel because Greenpeace says this company’s packaging materials contribute to deforestation in Indonesia.
Mattel sources its fiber materials for disposable packaging from the company Asia Pulp and Paper. Greenpeace has been after this company for years because its pulpwood suppliers are destroying ecologically important forests in Sumatra, including areas designated as a tiger habitat. Mattel denied the allegations, claiming that they practice responsible sourcing but no exact details were provided as to how they control their supply chain and source responsibly. This really highlights the lack of transparency plaguing this brand.
Aligned with Mattel’s goal to achieve 100% recycled, recyclable, or bio-based plastic materials in their products and packaging by 2030, they introduced several new toy products in 2021, which incorporated more sustainable resin feedstocks and integrated principles of product stewardship and circular design. The brand has done a lot community-wise, setting up a few philanthropic ventures, like the Mattel children’s foundation by creating meaningful play experiences for children in need through toy donations, play kits and partnerships with leading organizations and events. Their Hot Wheels Speedometry program encourages STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) development and their partnership with UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital advances research for improving children’s health.
Mattel also encourages a family-friendly workplace, by having benefits for employees like paid parental leave, infertility treatment, adoption assistance, etc. Additionally, the brand encourages diversity, equity and inclusion by fostering a culture where all employees have an opportunity to realise their potential.
As part of their mission to encourage reuse of old toys, the American Girl Doll Hospital allows their customers ‘admit’ their beloved dolls in-store or online to be repaired and restored. By maintaining replacement parts for at least 15 years after a doll model’s retirement date, parts that are broken, worn or need replacement can be fixed.
While there is a lot of room for improvement on their part environmentally, and a lot to be done about their transparency, Mattel is a brand that has put a smile on the faces of millions of children worldwide. So, I certainly do hope going forward, they implement the plans they claim to have to ensure circularity in their design.