Just as parents worry about the toys their babies play with—after all, young children are notorious toy chewer—they’re paying attention to the same when it comes to their pets, a concern that’s fueling the demand for eco-friendly toys. This awareness first sparked with the pet food scare of a few years ago, says Dave Colella, co-owner of earthdog, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company that makes collars, leashes, beds and toys from hemp. Initially confined to food, the desire for safe-as-possible products now encompasses anything the pet can lick or chew, adds Colella.
When earthdog first began manufacturing its hemp products 14 years ago, they encountered a fair level of resistance. “We got a lot of smirks and smiles,” he recalls. “Now acceptance is great; hemp has become almost mainstream.”
Kim Oliver, CEO and founder of The Good Dog Company, has also seen hemp acceptance rise as confusion has cleared, particularly among younger consumers. The company, located in Golden, Colo., makes toys, leashes, collars and harnesses out of hemp and certified-organic cotton.
It’s not just hemp toys that pet owners and retailers are seeking out. They’re looking for all manner of earth-friendly toys, particularly as folks in general are increasingly interested in living greener.
“Consumers are becoming more aware of natural lifestyle choices and have begun to embrace a more holistic approach as they seek out healthier alternatives for themselves and their animal companions,” says Kristen Smith, brand ambassador for Planet Dog, in Portland, Maine. The company manufactures a variety of socially responsible dog toys and accessories.
“Green, eco-friendly products are extremely popular right now,” she says. “Competition for these items seems to be growing. More companies are developing eco-friendly options because the trend toward purchasing them is growing.”
Oliver says she sees more retailers incorporating eco-friendly toys into their inventories. And where interest in these items was once primarily limited to the independents, now the big-box retailers are moving them in, eager to capitalize on a proven trend. Even so, because eco-friendly toys require some customer education, independent retailers often have the advantage over the mass merchants.
For one thing, these toys typically carry higher price points than their conventional counterparts, and this is still a recessionary climate. Discussing their eco-friendly features and benefits will help justify the price difference and encourage sales, says Colella.
This discussion shouldn’t be limited to just the product itself; it should also incorporate information about the company and its practices, says Spencer Williams, owner and president of West Paw Design. Located in Bozeman, Mont., the company manufactures pet products using recycled, organic and recyclable materials.
“In addition to highlighting eco-friendly materials, I think it’s important to look at all of the factors that contribute to sustainability—such as how [the product] is made, where it’s made and where the materials were sourced,” says Williams. “Storeowners and staff members can be extremely valuable resources by helping customers understand all of a product’s attributes.”
Some confusion still lingers about the differences between natural and organic products, says Oliver. For example, cotton is a natural product, but it cannot be labeled organic unless it is grown to specific requirements, particularly since, unless organically grown, cotton can be subjected to liberal use of herbicides and pesticides. A product made from cotton grown in this manner would hardly qualify as “green,” but it would nevertheless be accurately described as “natural.” Storeowners and staff, Oliver says, should be able to point out these distinctions to their customers. And here again, smaller retail operations have a real opportunity to shine over their larger competitors.
Unfortunately, there can often be a disconnect between storeowners and their employees that can thwart communication, says Oliver, explaining that storeowners should relay to staff why they brought the product in and its features and benefits.
“If employees know what products are in the store and what’s special about them, they can pass this information on to the customer,” she says. “It becomes a very powerful selling tool.”
Consumers want to know the faces behind the product, says Colella. And many are drawn to those manufactured domestically; another advantage eco-friendly toys offer, he adds.
“We’re a small, independent company,” says Colella. “We manufacture our products in the U.S. If the retailer can pass this information along, it resonates with a lot of consumers who want to know they’re not dealing with a big conglomerate.”
This is why it’s important that smaller retailers are knowledgeable about the companies that make the products they inventory, says Williams. This knowledge, combined with excellent customer service, helps independents differentiate themselves from less educated competitors.
Colella believes it’s most effective to separate eco-friendly toys from conventional ones. Not only will this make it easier for consumers to identify these products, it will make it easier for retailers to tell the story behind them as well.
Use strong visual displays that immediately let consumers know you carry eco-friendly choices, says Smith. “Retailers might also want to utilize an icon calling out the green options throughout the store,” she suggests.
Providing eco-friendly toys can prove quite profitable for retailers, says Oliver.
“Since most toy products have higher margins than other categories, and since more people are looking for eco-friendly products, they can direct people to a category that has very good margins,” she explains. “And these are feel-good products. It feels good to buy toys for the pet and to also buy something that’s good for the earth.”