Exclusive: Steve Cox of Keel Toys on why sustainability shouldn’t cost the earth

Published on: 18th October 2021

Keel Toys’ Keeleco plush range will be showcased in the Sustainability Activation at BLE in November.

Keel Toys is participating in the BLE Sustainability Activation in partnership with Products of Change. BLE takes place in person from 17th-19th November 2021 at Excel London, and online 30th November – 1st December). Toy World caught up with UK sales director Steve Cox to find out what’s changed since he took part in B&LIS back in June.

The last time we spoke, you were heading into a panel session at B&LIS talking about sustainability and the changes the toy industry needs to make. Are we any closer to the industry developing/discovering a source of reusable and recycled plastic for toys?

Recycled polyester is being adopted by some companies for fabric-based products such as Keel Toys – the Keeleco sustainable soft toy range launched in 2020. Working on hard plastic toys is proving more difficult.

The difference between then and now is that it’s not only at the front of everyone’s agenda, it’s no longer all talk: many companies are now acting and doing. Lego is probably further along the road as I understand they are working on using recycled plastic for their bricks, and Zuru has made inroads into both recycling and finding material alternatives. Many others are still working on packaging, getting that right before tackling the issue of recycled plastic.

We’ve also talked about your own sustainability journey at Keel Toys, particularly the Keeleco range. How are sales looking?

Our Keeleco (which features 100% recycled material) has done phenomenally since we came out of lockdown. Back in June we had 17 designs. We now have over 120 SKUs and we have used the equivalent of more than 9m recycled water bottles since we launched.

We started with Wild Animals, added British Wildlife and Farm Animals, and then launched a dedicated nursery range, which has flown off the shelves with retailers such as JoJo Maman Bebe planning to extend the range.

Why do you think it’s done so well?

People buy for three reasons:

  1. Emotional – do they love it? Often that’s why consumers pick soft toys.
  2. Functionality – how does it work, look and feel? Keeleco’s soft toys feel exactly how they should feel. The only difference is that they are made from a recycled  source of polyester, not a virgin one.
  3. Money – will this purchase make me money, save me money, or offer good value? The Keeleco range falls into the latter category because we don’t charge more for them compared to ‘regular’ plush.

But then it also ticks a new, fourth box, which is: ‘Is it sustainable?’. And this is as important for retailers as it is for consumers, especially for attractions and zoos, for whom it’s now a must to offer consumers a sustainable product option. There’s this meeting of minds when it comes to sustainability – the push by retailer and pull by consumer – with the caveat that they don’t want to pay more to be sustainable. Inflation is rising, food and fuel prices are going up. It’s essential that the price is right.

What plans do you have for extending the Keeleco range?

We started with natural wildlife parks and zoos, and nursery was a logical step forward. Next up, we are planning a range of fashion-based soft toys, which is a bit funkier. We soft launched the range at Autumn Fair. It includes 12 very cute soft toys with the typical big eyes, but embroidered, not glass. The artwork features holidays and travel, but with a quiet nod to sustainable travel – so hot air balloons and boats, rather than planes and cars. We are launching at retail in January/February 2022, but will be previewing the range at BLE.

Do you envisage a future when all of your toys qualify to sit under the Keeleco brand?

There are certain products where a recycled fabric option isn’t yet available for externals, but over 50% of Keel Toys will become Keeleco toys within the next 24 months.

You’re taking part in the Sustainability Activation at BLE. What can visitors expect to see from you there?

In addition to the new fashion range of Keeleco toys, we’ll be showing a diorama that explains the journey we go through to turn plastic bottles into soft toys. I’m really pleased to be back in person – I’ve done three live events recently, and I’m looking forward to being at BLE next.

What’s the one message you want retailers and licensees to leave with?

My big message is for licensees and retailers to remember that sustainable products should not cost to the earth – either for the planet or the people from whose pocket the money will come.


Friday Blog

I couldn’t have put it better myself…it’s the Friday Blog!

New My Fairy Garden play sets launch with biggest campaign to date

Exclusive: Sambro details Ethical and Sustainability remit

Tandem Group appoints new director of Digital & Marketing

Orchard Toys smashes £10k fundraising target for hospice charity

Licensing U programme reimagined for 2022

CEO Andre Javes departs Toys R Us Asia

Roblox sues WowWee over new doll range My Avastars

Playmobil launches its first sustainable product range, Wiltopia

Exclusive: A look ahead with Mattel