Introducing WiT’s Sustainability Learning Community, Q&A with the Co-Chairs Paola Dyboski and Sharon Keilthy

As members of the toys, licensing, and entertainment industries, we have a big opportunity with the products and media we create to protect our climate, our planet, and our children’s safe futures. But we’re not there yet, and it can be challenging to know how to even get started. How can you design a sustainable toy? How can the content you create engage kids and their families on topics like sustainability? And how can you encourage your colleagues to be part of the change?

If you have a lot of questions about sustainability — we hear you. The good news is, our community is filled with tons of brilliant people who have the answers, ideas, and energy we need to move the needle on sustainability.

WiT’s new Sustainability Learning Community will be a place to ask these questions, find answers, and create change, together — not with “expert presents” webinars, but as a community where we give and take and work together to figure it all out.

We’re so excited to bring this community to life at WiT. But it would not have been possible without the help of its co-chairs, Paola Dyboski, Owner and Managing Director of Dr Zigs and Sharon Keilthy, Founder and CEO of Jiminy Eco Toys…so let’s start by meeting them.

Tell us a bit about yourselves and your WiT journey.

Sharon: It was 2018, and I wanted a nice, plastic-free, locally-made toy for my daughter’s fourth birthday — but I couldn’t find one! I later learned that the toy industry is the world’s most plastic-intensive industry. In fact, we’d have to plant 1 billion trees to absorb all of the CO2 released while making plastic toys.

Then, after reading the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, I redefined myself as an environmental activist. It felt like there was nothing more urgent and important I could be doing.

So I put the two together and created Jiminy Eco Toys — the world’s first eco-activist toy company. Jiminy exists to inspire a playfully sustainable world for us all – to make “sustainable” the new normal for toys.

It wasn’t until 2021 that someone told me about WiT. I joined 30 minutes later, and my life was instantly enhanced! WiT is so well-organized and such a helpful community to be part of!

Paola: My background is in Marine Conservation, studying cetaceans — whales and dolphins. Before that, I was a professional sailor, and I grew up on the Ligurian coast in Italy. I am passionate about nature. When I was about seven years old, there was a huge sewage spill on my area of pristine coastline. The water — our environment — was suddenly not safe, and it took years for it to recover. I think that’s when I became an environmental activist. Then in my twenties I sailed the Atlantic. And there, in the stunning beauty of the wild open ocean, between sightings of Sperm Whale – I first saw drifts of plastic, and I really began to question our impact on the earth.

I’m also the child of a Polish refugee, and that has marked my life. I’m passionate about justice and human rights, and to this day, I work with refugees, including, increasingly, climate refugees.

When my youngest son, Ziggy, was a toddler, he fell in love with bubbles. He’d get those crazy contagious giggles every time he saw them. So I made more and bigger bubbles until it became too good not to share. That’s how my company, Dr Zigs, and our line of eco bubble toys, was born.

It was pretty obvious then that every bubble toy on the shelf was cheap, low quality, plastic and mostly made in China. So I thought I could re-invent these for the 21st century. I worked to redesign and reinvent what I found. I went from selling what I made at my kitchen table out of the boot of my car, to local markets, then larger festivals, then pop-up shops, then a retail outlet — and now, our Dr Zigs Bubble toys are available in 18 different countries worldwide.

From the very beginning I based Dr Zigs around the principles of sustainability — from ingredients, to materials, to calculating our carbon miles. And at the heart of Dr Zigs is our “Bubbles Not Bombs” program. We work with refugees and with kids who need bubbles around the world. Our bubbles have been sent to children in Chernobyl, Kenya, Delhi, and just this week, they arrived at a refugee camp in Lebanon and in Lviv, Ukraine for kids arriving there every day, tired and traumatized.

I came across WiT when I was exhibiting at the Spielwarenmesse, the Toy Fair in Nuremberg in 2018. It was pre-COVID, so I actually managed to meet some of our wonderful members “in 3D,” as my son now says. I was really thrilled to find this group and to find such friendly, supportive allies in this world of toys. I have been blown away by the opportunity and support this group gives — including the ability to suggest the idea for the Sustainability Learning Community. And wow, here we are!

Sustainability as a term has become a bit mainstream and it is sometimes used interchangeably with a variety of meanings. In your own words, how would you define sustainability and why is it important in the design and development of consumer products?

Paola: Sustainability for me means that it has to last into the future without damage to our present. Including people and the physical world around us. And while the concept of Sustainability is huge and global, meaning our planet and our resources, I like to take this down to the every day and personal level.

When I set up Dr Zigs, for example, it had to be sustainable for me and my family. I have three kids, one of whom is autistic. That meant slower growth for the company, traveling less, etc.

Dr Zigs also HAD to be sustainable in terms of the environment, of course. Sourcing locally when appropriate, harvesting water, and offering £3 off refills for our customers — we did these things from the very beginning when I started the business 10 years ago.

On a daily level, sustainability also means carsharing to work, or living close enough to cycle or walk. It means counting the tons of waste we recycle. It means we plant bee-friendly plants outside our factory. And it means becoming detectives to hunt down the origin of every component and ingredient in our product line.

I also work with a global group of women tackling the issue of microplastics in our oceans. Plastic is a huge issue worldwide. Sustainability here looks like closing the loop on refuse in the system. That’s why we created our “For Hire” range.

And for me, from the micro to the macro, from local to global, sustainability includes education and information — empowering people, and kids especially, to BE THE CHANGE.

What is WiT’s Sustainability Learning Community and what inspired you to bring it to life?

Sharon: It’s a learning community for people curious about sustainability in toys, licensing and entertainment! A welcoming space to ask any question at all, and to offer what you do know.

When I speak with toy industry people about toy sustainability, I see that people really want to do better, but often don’t know how. Which materials are sustainable and workable? Is the toy or packaging more important? Which has a bigger effect — choice of material or transport distance? I also see cool things happening in products — recycled plastics, design for repair, mainstream pre-loved retail like Zalando and toy libraries.

It’s very clear that our industry, like every other industry, needs to urgently reach net-zero emissions. So it’s a no-brainer to bring everyone together to swap what they know, to energize each other about this change, and help each other make it happen.

What is your vision for this chapter, and what are some of the objectives you want to achieve?

Paola: Originally, my vision was to have a forum — a place of exchange, discussion, and sharing. A place where we can come together and share the challenges, share the knowledge, share the questions, and share the solutions. But increasingly, I also think this learning community needs to be a place that helps people feel empowered. The vision and objectives will actually be formed by the members themselves.

I am just a small company making (the best, obviously) eco bubble toys, but I love working with others. I love the way WiT brings us together, whether we work for multinationals or as self-employed inventors. It breaks down barriers and allows space for communication.

So if we focus on a topic as large and as broad as Sustainability — imagine the conversations, questions, and solutions that we can come up with together! Imagine if as an industry, we all demanded that plastic was post-consumer, or made of ocean waste. Imagine if we created that demand. Imagine if we can change the whole industry. That may be ambitious, but there is so much that we can do together.

I’m excited to have a space where we can ask questions without feeling stupid. How do you calculate your carbon footprint? How many of us are aiming for net-zero? How sustainable IS bioplastic really? I’m excited to have a space where, by working together, we start to feel like we really can bring about change.

What would you say are meaningful steps towards sustainability you have seen companies take over the last few years?

Sharon: LEGO’s 2030 Sustainability Plan is very impressive and exciting. It’s holistic — it’s not just packaging, renewable electricity, or a few pilot products. They’re looking at product and packaging across their entire range!

It’s great to see the other toy makers (big and small) experimenting and learning with bioplastic, recycled plastic, less packaging, localizing production, renewable energy, etc.

In your opinion, what is the role the Toy, Licensing and Entertainment industries play in creating a more sustainable future?

Paola: Well, we’re all in this because of the kids aren’t we? This is all about their future — a future where not only will they have to learn to do better than us, but one in which they will have to learn to be mighty resilient and resourceful. The tools we can give them now, through play, learning, and entertainment, will be invaluable as they grow up.

As an industry, what we do best is inspire, enable, and create opportunities for role play, skill development, problem solving, and, of course, laughter. We are there for the early years, those crucial learning moments. It’s so important that these are filled with items, games, and toys that are right for them and that they, and their parents, can feel good about.

How are the advancement of women, inclusivity and equality, and the future of sustainability connected?

Sharon: If women are roughly half the talent, then excluding them deprives our world of half the good ideas and half the energy. The same goes for any other group. Our world has some major changes to make, and we need the best ideas and effort from everyone.

Moreover, sometimes a problem is best solved by someone looking at it from the outside. So in a way, the people who’ve not created the current challenges may have the best ideas to solve them.

I’m sure we’re all on board with diversity, inclusion, and equality just from a values point of view. But there’s also a really strong business case for it — businesses with more diverse boards perform better (research by McKinsey & Co).

What three things would you advise companies in the Toy, Licensing and Entertainment industries change in their journey towards more sustainable operations?

Sharon: Here are three things to keep in mind about sustainability:

  1. The change to sustainable isn’t optional. It’s not a trend. It’s not a niche market segment. It’s a must-do for every company. Once we accept that, we’ll get there much more quickly!
  2. Think about your products by weight (as a measure of impact). What percent of the toy’s weight is its packaging? If the answer is 1%, why start with that? The bigger impact will be the 99% by weight (the toy itself!)
  3. Recycled plastic is an exciting opportunity. So little plastic waste gets recycled at all. Globally, most gets entirely wasted — incinerated, landfilled, or left out in nature. The more we seek recycled plastic, the more people will figure out ways to recycle it. There are challenges with finding suppliers and with safety-certification, but I feel we can find ways to overcome these, especially if we act together.

Any upcoming milestones / events our community should be on the lookout for?

Paola: My new Plant-Based Bubble Mix, made of sustainably sourced ingredients that are fully biodegradable, vegan, and utterly awesome. Oh, and they make the biggest, bestest, most colorful bubbles in the world.

Apart from that? Earth Day, and the launch of the WiT Sustainability Learning Community, of course!

WiT’s new Learning Communities are shared spaces where members can exchange ideas, ask questions, discuss challenges, and explore solutions. This is a community-led initiative where everyone is welcome and every question is valid. The Sustainability Learning Community is just the first of many that we’ll launch soon, stay tuned!

Have a topic idea for a Learning Community? Contact us at info@womenintoys.com.