Keeping Play Safe

Pet owners seeking eco-friendly alternative products for their pets are increasingly turning their attention to the toy category, and they are finding plenty of options thanks to green-focused manufacturers.


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Both mainstream and buzzworthy, the eco-friendly label is being attached to all manner of products—whether they fully deserve the description or not. Manufacturers have incentive to do so, motivated by the increasing numbers of consumers searching for more earth-friendly, natural products. This is especially true of pet owners, who have grown particularly watchful of what goes into and onto their four-footed companions.

One pet category seeing a lot of eco-friendly activity is toys. After all, considering how much time dogs spend carrying toys around in their mouths, it is no surprise that people want these to be as safe and nontoxic as possible. But for pet specialty retailers, weeding out the green from not-so-green can be challenging—there are just so many options on the market. Here are several companies who have made eco-friendly toys (and other products) their passion.


An Inspired Thought
Everyday after work, Roni DiLullo would take her Border Bollie, Midknight, to the dog park. DiLullo, at the time a software engineer for Hewlett Packard, noticed that as the sun began setting, Midknight seemed to have trouble seeing, appearing especially sensitive to the sun’s glare. A thought struck her—what about sunglasses for dogs? After several attempts to marry goggles and sunglasses, Doggles (doggles.com) was born. The doggie sunglasses were almost an instant hit, inspiring DiLullo to leave her job and launch Midknight Creations LLC (dba as Doggles LLC). In business since 1997 and headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., the company now offers an array of items for dogs and cats, including eco-friendly dog toys.

Added to the lineup about eight years ago, the toys are constructed from a woven material made from recycled water and soda bottles. There are around 50 kinds of toys made from this material in a range of sizes, shapes, colors and weaves. Although DiLullo has several eco-friendly toy lines, her biggest-seller is the Pentapulls line, offering various animal-shaped toys, such as Hedgehog, Skunk and Cow. She is also considering adding toys made from organic plant-based materials, like cotton raised without pesticides.

“We’re seeing a lot of this kind of material becoming available,” DiLullo says. “I don’t have any cotton toys at the moment, but we are definitely looking into this.”

Eco-friendly options are becoming more available, she adds. “We do the tradeshows every year, and every year, we see more eco-friendly toys entering the market. It is competition, but I love to see it.”


It Takes a Village
When Wendy Jones launched Walk-e-Woo (walkewoo.com) 12 years ago, the Denver-based company offered items like leashes, harnesses and collars for dogs, along with synthetic toys. But about two years ago, after hearing about a fiber called abaca, Jones began thinking about adding eco-friendly toys to the mix. Grown in the Philippines, the fiber is one of the world’s strongest, Jones says. A relative of the banana plant, it is also known as “Manila hemp” and has many similar properties to hemp, such as being anti-microbial and biodegradable.

Jones decided to investigate, a journey that took her to villages on the outskirts of Manila. There, the self-described city girl found herself amidst huts with no electricity, killer humidity (and the assorted insects that go along with its) and in the company of some “amazing” artisans, who were working with the fiber, weaving it into rope and other items.

Inspired and excited, Jones returned home and created a new division of Walk-e-Woo, called Abaca-Dabra (in honor of the fiber), focused entirely on eco-friendly dog toys. Last November, she introduced the rope toys to the market. Available in a range of shapes—such as Lollipop, Toothbrush and Giraffe—sizes and vegetable-dyed colors, the handmade toys are produced by local artisans in various villages outside of Manila.

Although it hasn’t always been smooth sailing—there were major production delays as a result of the two typhoons that struck the Philippines—Jones says the undertaking has been more than worthwhile. She’s not only able to appeal to eco-friendly consumers; her company is also helping to support small villages.


A Two-Wheeled Start
Cycle Dog – Earth Friendly Pet Company (cycledog.com) began with a passion for biking and the resultant flat tires that go along with this activity, says company president Lanette Fidrych. Reluctant to throw her old tubes in the trash, realizing they would take eons to decompose, Fidrych looked for ways to make better use of the material. Instead of tossing the tubes, she started making dog collars and leads for her dog out of them—which, since the inner tube backing resists bacteria, also made the collars and leads stink-free, an unanticipated plus. Thus, a company was launched.

 In business since 2009, Cycle Dog, based in Portland, Ore., now produces bowls, treats, beds, poop bags and toys, all using post-consumer recycled materials. “Except for our treats, of course,” says Fidrych.

“Our goal is to reduce landfill waste,” she explains. “Being earth-friendly is a philosophy for our brand, not a trend.”

The company’s 3-Play toys are made with Cycle Dog’s Ecolast post-consumer recycled material. The collection combines a squeaking play head, a treat-hiding tummy and a SuperFloat water toy. The toys are available in Hippo, Turtle and Dino, in both standard and small sizes.

The No. 1 trend hitting the eco-friendly category is “greenwashing,” says Fidrych. “Companies are looking for ways to appeal to eco-conscious consumers and are using any way possible to create a story around green products—some more meaningful than others.”

Pet specialty retailers should learn about the products they’re offering or considering, and what makes them eco-friendly, she cautions, since customers will want to know this information.


Keeping it Simple
When Simply Fido (simplyfido.com) first launched its eco-friendly dog toys back in 2004, the organic/natural concept was mainly associated with food, says Sam Hahn, managing partner of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company. “People weren’t really aware of eco-friendly toys back then,” he recalls. “We had to do a lot of educating about the benefits.”

That’s not the case today. Now, eco-friendly has become mainstream, with demand spreading to many product categories, says Hahn. In fact, this year the company is in the process of expanding its eco-friendly offerings to non-toy items, such as food bowls made from bio-plastics.

The Simply Fido brand, which manufactures and wholesales other products, such as mats for dogs, was once part of a larger company that made eco-friendly baby toys. About five years ago, Hahn and his wife spun the company off into its own entity. It offers several types of eco-friendly toys, such as plush toys made from organic cotton colored with low-impact dyes; stuffless toys with crinkle paper; and toys made from natural, chemical-free, nontoxic rubber that are FDA approved, meaning they can safely come into contact with food.

While the growing demand for eco-friendly products has expanded selling opportunities, the downside is that it has made life a little tougher for manufacturers of these products. As more eco-friendly toy choices become available, pricing has become more competitive and consumers have grown more price-sensitive and demanding. In response, Hahn says the company has taken a look at its packaging, which is also eco-friendly, streamlining it to make it more cost effective.


Pioneering Eco-Friendly
Inspired by companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, Planet Dog (planetdog.com) was founded in 1997 with the objective of providing the pet industry with sustainable, eco-friendly, premium dog products, says Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for the Portland, Maine-based company.

“For us, eco-friendly toys have always been ones made from renewable, recyclable and natural materials—hemp, bamboo, recycled and recyclable plastics, etc.,” says Smith. “For example, our Orbee-Tuff line is made from a recyclable material that includes 20- to 100-percent recycled material.”

The line offers a variety of toys in different sizes and shapes for dogs with all manner of chewing habits, she says. When the toys are damaged or destroyed, or the dog simply wants a new one, they can be returned to Planet Dog, where they can be turned into a new dog toy.

Smith sees only growth ahead for the eco-friendly category in general, fueled by the burgeoning demand for safe, natural products and by pet owners who consider their dogs actual members of the family. As more people pay attention to their own health and wellness, they’re doing the same for their canine counterparts, sparking growth in various eco-friendly product categories, says Smith. She also expects the toy segment to become increasingly competitive as more companies enter the arena.

“We also expect to see more copy-cats in the category and more ‘greenwashing’ as well,” she adds. “Consequently, retailers should know the brands they carry and be willing to stand behind them. Responsible manufacturers of non-toxic toys will gladly back up their claims and be willing and able to train retail staff.”

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