October 13, 2008 at 9:01AM
by Alexandra Zissu
Like most parents these days, I'm very concerned about the toys I bring into my home, and even more concerned about the toys other people bring us as well-intentioned gifts. We don't actually have very many toys (less is more...) but I try to mainly buy wood, largely unpainted, and from small companies that disclose where they manufacture their goods. If I'm in the market for something only available from a new-to-us brand, I always research it on HealthyToys.org as well as Consumer Reports before I shop. And I never, ever go into a toy store with an I-want-it-all-now toddler. If I happen to have her with me when I'm toy shopping, I explain very carefully that we're only in there for something specific, usually a gift for someone else. But, as with all of my best laid plans, they're just plans. We live in the world. Not everything is controllable.
The fact that my daughter has fallen madly in love with Calico Critters falls squarely in this realm. Haven't seen them? Likely you will at some point. They're little plastic animals with clothes that come on and off. She first became interested when a local store put out a play table full of them. We spend a fair amount of time in this store, visiting the owner who is our neighbor/friend. It's the perfect spot for bad weather, to troll for baby shower/birthday presents, and to break up our days. The first time she met a Critter was a miserable day - it was raining, she was very cranky and we popped in for something. She wound up playing for thirty minutes straight and it shifted her mood entirely. If you don't yet have a two and a half year old, or have forgotten what, exactly, it's like to be with one around the clock, a half hour of uninterrupted play is as good as it gets. Bliss. She didn't ask to bring one home that day - phew. But she did shortly afterwards, and frankly I wanted them as badly as she did. Oh what I can get done at home with thirty spare minutes!
So I emailed the Critter publicist to find out what the little figures are made out of. And here's what I found out: their bodies, heads, arms, and legs are non-phthalate PVC, their fur ("flocking pile) is nylon, and their clothes are cotton. Their houses and furniture are made of HIPS, ABS, and non-phthalate PVC. I have also seen some outdoor furniture and play items for the dolls like tricycles and pails and shovels made of wood - painted and unpainted.
I had been really hoping to hear it wasn't PVC at all, environmentally speaking, but pleased to hear for her health that their version didn't, they say, contain hormone disrupting phthalates. I'm not as familiar with the properties of non-phthalate PVC as I am with the real stuff (which is often referred to in green circles as "poison plastic" - there is no less environmentally friendly material from manufacture to disposal), but this disclosure discouraged me. I always think of shopping for things like toys as really voting with my dollars - how can I of all people excuse "voting for" PVC when I'm constantly asking people to avoid it??
Just as I was coming to terms with the fact that we were never going to own Calico Critters, and wondering how and with what they glue the nylon flocking to the PVC bodies, a grandparent or two got wind of just how much their granddaughter loved the things and got a couple of them for her. It brought new meaning to something (in this case a toy) being grandfathered in. She was thrilled. And they really hold her attention beautifully. She role plays hilariously - putting them to bed, dressing them, feeding them, telling stories about what they're doing, and what she is doing to and with them. Still, the other creatures the Critters play with in her doll house (which was mine from when I was a lot older than her, so purchased post lead-paint, I hope) are wooden. When I'm feeling bad about her having a PVC toy, I feel better knowing she doesn't put anything in her mouth anymore. Some Finnish relatives gifted us a lovely bib when she was first born, for example, which I didn't realize was PVC until after she had mouthed it for months. Ack! I had wrongly assumed anything from Scandinavia would be made of an eco fabric; they're light years ahead of us in that respect.
Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, I got an email from a toy publicist pitching me a great new "eco doll" that was part of a line of other dolls. I asked what was eco about the doll and apparently it was only her message/theme - she came with a book about saving the environment and she was therefore "green." I of course asked about materials and she was also made of non- phthalate PVC. The publicist for this doll was quite lovely but also entirely unaware of which materials are green and which aren't and why branding something "eco" when it's made out of PVC is egregious. Score one for the Calico Critters for not attempting to greenwash!