The following report was produced by the author as Communications Director for Fur Commission USA (1999-2011), and is reproduced with permission.


Saving the Planet with ... Plush Toys?

"Green" Groups' Fundraising Practice Inconsistent with Goals

(Revised Dec. 2, 2010)

While the debate over man's contribution to climate change rages, there is a general consensus that we need to reduce our dependency on petrochemicals. Taken individually, gas-guzzlers, polyester clothing, and plastic bags(1) may not be the biggest blights on the planet, but collectively they are a behemoth. From oil well and tanker spills, to clogged landfills, chemical smogs, and waterways, oceans and beaches despoiled by plastic refuse, petrochemicals are harming our planet in myriad ways.

The good news is that we have recognized this problem, and resolved to address it.

The perplexing news is that some organizations which campaign to combat global warming, or save animals and habitats threatened by it, still do so by peddling petrochemical products.

It's like selling cigarettes to fund the war on cancer - and most of the leading "conservation" and "environmental" organizations are doing it.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which calls itself "America's largest conservation organization," works "to protect and restore wildlife habitat, confront global warming and connect with nature." And it does so by peddling plastic.

The World Wildlife Fund - US, the American branch of the world's best-known conservation and environmental organization, the World Wide Fund for Nature, does the same.

And these are just two of the largest so-called "green" groups. Countless zoos, which likewise these days claim "green" credentials, are also into the business.

The offending items could not look less offensive if they tried. They're those smiling lumps of soft, whiskery fun known as "plush toys," "stuffed animals," or "cuddly toys." But unfortunately, these are not the stuffed animals our grandparents loved.

Though terms like "sustainability" and "biodegradability" were not even in our grandparents' lexicon, their stuffed animals were made of all-natural materials. The outsides were cotton, sheepskin, fur or felt, and the insides anything from chopped-up rags to wood shavings to kapok fiber. And when their loving owners had outgrown them, these toys obligingly turned to dust, or decomposed organically back into the Earth. No harm, no foul.

Today's plush toys, in contrast, break all the rules about sustainability. Almost all are made 100% from polyester, which in turn comes from non-biodegradable, unsustainable, polluting oil.

The good news is that the future for renewable, sustainable, natural fibers is again bright, thanks to society's rapidly evolving grasp of environmental issues. But changing our buying habits will be a two-way street. Suppliers don't just meet demand, they can also create it. "Green" groups should be expected to promote "green" goods, and plush toys made from petrochemicals do not fit the bill.

So why do they still do it?

It's inconceivable that they have failed to make the connection. The only explanation is that they choose to ignore it for business reasons.

Oil Spills and Global Warming

There's no question these groups want to be seen as "green".

Following the April 2010 explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, NWF's website sported a rotation of flashy banners which read: "Oil spill crisis. How you can help wildlife," "Learn how oil spills are threatening wildlife," and "Global warming. How is the changing climate impacting wildlife?"

Yet the 100% polyester plush toys NWF peddles to fund its campaign against fossil fuels are made from the same fossil fuel - oil - now clogging the Louisiana coastline.

Still, NWF has the gall to say that by "adopting" a polar bear made from fossil fuel, in one fell swoop you can help reverse global warming and save real polar bears from extinction!

"Until recently, polar bears have been one of nature's hardiest survivors," reads the sales bumph. "But because of global warming, scientists predict two-thirds of their global population could disappear within the next fifty years! Rising temperatures are literally melting the ice beneath their paws, drastically reducing their habitat and food supply."

Now while it may be true that the money people fork over for their polyester bears will help NWF save the world, wouldn't it be cool if the items being purchased were actually part of the solution, and not part of the problem?

Beset with similar problems of habitat loss, says NWF, are snowshoe hares and the moose of Minnesota, so you can "adopt" polyester lookalikes of those species too.

Actually, you can adopt no fewer than 51 species, including abundant and thriving ones like the harp seal that just happen to make cute plush toys.

Correction. Apparently the harp seal is threatened by global warming too.

"Global warming is bringing rapid changes to the Arctic," NWF states, "as the summer icecap shrinks to smaller sizes than ever recorded in the past and may have a negative impact on the populations of fish and other animals on which harp seals feed, and quite possibly the seals as well."

So a shrinking ice cap may mean less food for harp seals (don't ask how that works), but not to worry. Adopt a polyester seal today, and watch those icecaps - and NWF's bank account - grow!

Far From Alone

"Green" groups like NWF are, of course, far from alone in boosting the planet's population of petrochemical toys, headed inevitably for life eternal at the dump.

You can buy a plush toy not just in toy stores but in just about every kind of retail outlet. Souvenir shops, gas stations, supermarkets - all have their stands of SpongeBob Squarepants, Disney characters and "furry" dice.

But these retailers are just honest capitalists trying to get their hands on your money. They make no lofty claims about saving the world's sponges or reversing global warming. Of course it would be nice if they did, and in time, 100% polyester SpongeBobs will become a thing of the past. But until that time comes, someone needs to lead by example - to set a higher standard.

Here's a small sampling of organizations that can reasonably be expected to set that higher standard:

San Diego Zoo

Besides being one of the largest zoos in the world, San Diego Zoo also considers itself one of the most progressive.

To help support its endeavors, it runs a large retail operation tempting you with "a wild selection of stuffed animals and unique animal gifts from around the world. Your online purchase supports the Zoological Society of San Diego, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to wildlife conservation, education, and research."

We must tip our hats to San Diego Zoo for "getting it" and offering a small selection of six stuffed animals that will biodegrade. They come with "a 100% soy fiber coat," which the zoo, at least, considers "an ecologically sound alternative to traditional fibers," and stuffed with kapok, "a sustainable rainforest crop."

But the question is left hanging: Why, if San Diego understands the importance of "ecologically sound" merchandise, are the hundreds of other stuffed toys it offers made entirely from petrochemicals?

It's a pity that America's first zoo to succeed in breeding giant pandas, and a pioneer of cageless exhibits, is content to fund conservation by selling polyester pandas.

London Zoo

Run by the Zoological Society of London, London Zoo is another pioneer. Besides being the world's oldest scientific zoo, it was also the first to open a reptile house, a public aquarium, an insect house, and a children's zoo.

"The conservation of wild animals and their natural habitats is fundamental to our mission," states the Society. "We work with local communities to conserve their environment and promote sustainability."

And through its store you can help it promote sustainability by buying one of its "superb range of animal soft toys" made entirely of unsustainable polyester.

Unlike San Diego Zoo, it doesn't even have a token offering of environment-friendly toys, "mainly due to the high price that our customers are unwilling to pay," explained a spokeswoman.

Humane Society of the United States

Most of the time, HSUS occupies itself with animal welfare and rights, neither of which is a "green" issue. But HSUS also loves to fundraise on high-profile conservation issues (whales, seals, elephants) and environmental issues (habitat loss, pollution), so it really should meet the "green" standard.

Following the April 2010 oil rig explosion in the Gulf, CEO Wayne Pacelle blogged:

"This is a monumental crisis, and it is still unfolding. ... The fragile Gulf Coast is under siege from this spreading menace of oil. No animals in the ecosystem - above, at, or below the surface - will escape its effects."

How can you help? You can start by buying a set of petrochemical dog covers for your golf clubs. Twenty-four different breeds are available, "handcrafted of the finest faux fur," and "guaranteed for life." Try guaranteed for ever. These products will never biodegrade.

World Wildlife Fund

The world's best-known conservation and environmental group, WWF has as its mission statement:

"Stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by: • conserving the world's biological diversity • ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable • promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption."

And you can help fund this vital work by "adopting" stuffed petrochemical animals, all the way up to a Giant Plush Adoption Kit for $250 that includes a 30-inch-tall polyester polar bear.

So we have to ask all "green" organizations still selling petrochemical plush toys:

  • How does peddling plastic promote sustainable use of renewable natural resources, and not simply increase consumption of oil?
  • How does peddling plastic reduce pollution, and not just lead to more oil spills and larger landfills?
  • How does peddling plastic reduce "wasteful consumption"? Aren't petrochemical plush toys, not to mention the "giant" ones favored by WWF, the epitome of wasteful consumption?
When such organizations raise funds by selling merchandise, they need to make sure their merchandise is consistent with their purported goals. In this case, they need to be selling plush toys that are made 100%, outside and in, from renewable, sustainable fibers, that biodegrade into organic compounds.

In the short term, such products will be a little more expensive to produce, but as demand grows, costs will fall. And with proper planning and implementation, the plush toys of the future may even provide direct benefits to humanity, wildlife, and the environment.

Now that's a product "green" groups could really bank on!


(1) Plastic bags on our backs. FCUSA commentary, Mar. 14, 2008.

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