Sharon Keilthy founded the Ireland-based company Jiminy Eco Toys in late 2018, inspired in part by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report that year. The report emphasized the need for the world to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
“For the first time I really understood that we are facing a climate emergency,” Keilthy recalls via email. “I decided to become an eco-activist, and to use my business background by working to make one industry more sustainable in a hands-on way.”
As a mother herself, Keilthy noticed how difficult it was to find sustainable toys: for her daughter’s fourth birthday, it was impossible to purchase something locally that wasn’t plastic wrapped in more plastic. The vast majority of toys, Keilthy says, are made using petroleum (crude oil) and have been sent from far-off countries – both of which contribute to CO2 emissions. Keilthy suspected that she wasn’t the only one who felt that she could no longer condone buying such wasteful products for her kids. As a result, she set out to retail and wholesale plastic-free, locally made toys and make sustainable play more accessible to folks in both Ireland and on the U.K. the mainland.
“We started on a cold November morning at my local park market, with a tent, a table, and 20 products.”
Today, Jiminy Eco Toys stocks more than 750 eco toys and books and supplies more than 30 shops around Ireland. The company stocks bubbles, craft kits, plush toys, puzzles, board games, and just about anything else one can find in a “mainstream” toy store. They even stock craft kits for adults. The key difference, of course, is that it’s all about making a minimal carbon footprint as well as a minimal waste footprint.
Reuse of products is another way to reduce waste. So, Jiminy Eco Toys has also launched Rainbow Rentals: an initiative to provide reusable party kits for kids’ gatherings, in an effort to combat the use of disposable, single-use products. The goal is to have Rainbow Rentals hosts in every locality in Ireland, so the rental kits are available across the country.
“We are now online-only and crafting ambitious plans to grow further – but also to eventually put ourselves out of business. The sustainable future for toys is that every toy on every shelf in every big toy store is made from plants – not just wood but also bioplastic – or recycled plastic. Then we will either retire or go solve some other problem!”
Until then, however, the company is facing challenges head-on. Despite a growing awareness of the climate crisis (not to mention experts’ calls for urgency), Keilthy notes that anything “eco” is still a niche market. Virgin petro-plastic and far-away production is cheaper than natural or recycled materials and local production, “so as a business that is actively trying to keep this planet safe for our children, our margins are smaller and we are a less attractive investment opportunity than a business that is actively destroying it.
“There are some fundamentals about how our economy is structured that act against environmentally friendly. The main one relevant to us is that virgin petro-plastic is eco-bad, but a sustainable substitute like bio-PE plastic costs more. Think about it: to get petroleum to the refinery, we need to go exploring – drilling, offshore rigs – then drill, frack, extract, build pipelines, etc. To get agricultural waste to the refinery (to make into bio-PE) cannot surely be more expensive than this. And the truth is, agricultural waste is not more expensive – it’s that the petroleum industry is subsidized. We need ‘the right thing to do’ to be the same or lower cost as ‘the wrong thing to do’ – the world needs to unpack its entanglement in petroleum. It’s not something that toys can solve alone, but maybe something toys can be a part of.”
Even with these difficulties in mind, Keilthy says the toy industry is a fun sector to work in. What’s more, she gets to pursue goals she feels strongly about as an eco-activist. “I love the community that has built-up around us to support our mission. I get so much encouragement and appreciation for what we are doing, and I have the opportunity to share information about sustainability with thousands of people who are curious to hear it. That is a real privilege.”