Toy titan Mattel sells more than 100 Barbie dolls per minute around the world—which requires a whole lot of virgin plastic. At the same time, the amount of plastic trash flowing into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple to 29 million metric tons by 2040, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and think tank SystemIQ. Looking to change the game, Mattel took a few steps in rethinking the supply chain behind its wildly popular doll, developing a Barbie Loves the Ocean line made of 90 percent recycled plastic.
Even in the notoriously fickle toy biz, the 62-year-old Barbie has managed to stay remarkably on trend, with the company evolving her design to add different skin tones, body types and physical abilities. Noting the company’s commitment to “better reflect the world kids see around them,” Mattel SVP Lisa McKnight called the project a “prime example of sustainable innovations we’ll make as part of creating a future environment where kids can thrive.” Yet she has also acknowledged that the new version of the doll had to “maintain the same quality and feel Barbie fans love and expect.”
To accomplish that in a way that would be scalable for a megabrand like Mattel took some serious research and technological innovation. Throughout the 18-month project, the company looked at everything from the material specs to the marketing blitz.
Partnering with Envision Plastics, the team sourced recycled plastic flakes recovered from coastal areas in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to produce the collection of three dolls, accessories and playsets. And then it boxed them all up in recyclable packaging certified by Forest Stewardship Council. The team also collaborated with ocean cleanup organization 4ocean on a limited-edition bracelet made with post-consumer recycled materials. For every 4ocean x Barbie bracelet sold, the group has committed to pulling 1 pound (0.5 kilograms) of trash from waterways.
And because no toy project is complete without a mega marketing push, Mattel promoted the new line with a video on the brand’s YouTube channel that had Barbie and friends offering eco-friendly tips for kids.
Barbie Loves the Ocean is one of several projects meant to deliver on Mattel’s overarching sustainability strategy. In May, the company debuted a new PlayBack program that invites consumers to send back their used toys to be recycled into future products. And the 76-year-old toymaker had already committed to using 100 percent recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastics materials in its products and packaging, and more than 75 percent fibers made of sustainable materials in its fashions, by 2030.
Mattel isn’t the only toy giant taking on plastics. Lego recently unveiled a prototype of its iconic blocks made from recycled plastic, although the Danish company readily acknowledges it will be “some time” before a product hits the shelves.