Making Green Toys

Miranda and Panda’s Plush Animals

A few years ago on a hike in a lush Virginian forest, my sister Kim, a conservation biologist, and I began discussing the strange practice of zoos selling oil derived toys—like stuffed pandas—in their gift stores. For the novice, most of the available plush toys out there are made of spun polyester, which is plastic and made from oil! Why would places of conservation sell products that directly went against their mission of conservation? It seemed counter-intuitive, and because both of us were annoyed by this practice, we decided to try and do something about it.

My background is in design. I make things. Early on I decided that corporate design was not for me so I traveled and volunteered, and funded all this through freelance and the sales of my own objects that I make in my ceramics studio (Beetle & Flor). For the past seven years I've been traveling to India, working with small NGOs or offering my design assistance to workshops or artisans who need help in design and branding. I prefer to work with smaller groups, inspiring visionaries who lack access to resources and just need design help. I've met amazing folks along the way, and thought this project would be perfect for one of the fair wage tailoring shops I had crossed paths with. We contacted a buyer at the Smithsonian gift shop who expressed interest in the project, and so I hopped on a plane to India.

Two workshops and several prototypes later, we met the perfect collaborator: Work + Shelter in Delhi. Theresa VanderMeer and Namita Krul, founded Work + Shelter about a year prior to us meeting. The organization’s goal is to create a tailoring shop where women can learn to knit, sew and make a decent living, but also provide a safe place of shelter with dependents should home life became too challenging. We completed our first batch order of spotted salamanders for a branch of the Smithsonian (FONZ), but, unfortunately, our contact at the gift store had moved on…It had been, after all, two years since we had first met.

In spite of that bump in the road, we continued to design and produce our plush toy. Proudly, we can say that each character is 99% biodegradable! The shell is of a cotton-linen blend, eyes of wool felt, stitched with cotton thread, and finally stuffed with either pure wool, cotton batting or a biodegradable polyfill. We're working on the consistency of it all, but as we've had several shops involved over different regions of India, we have several stuffing solutions, based of material availability. Our hang tags too are of 100% post consumer waste, printed here in the U.S. with soy-based ink.

The overall design of the characters and graphics are loosely based on Indian Gond art, mainly the 'flat' facial features of both Edi the elephant and Miranda. We're hoping to grow the number of characters and shops involved in this project-currently Dolls 4 Tibet in Northern India is working on our new lion!  

Our future characters will also include a little booklet with information on the lives of threatened species—which we base our characters—including scientific discoveries, unexpected facts, and their roles in nature. For now, we're busy working to getting all these awesome characters to as many zoos as possible!

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