Soy now Comes in Teddy Bear Form
Author: Nicole Maestri
"Tofu Bear" is part of Biltmore World Trade Inc.'s line of SoySilk Pals, stuffed animals whose fur is made out of soy fiber that is extruded from soybean cake, or tofu.
The small Tempe, Arizona-based company said the dolls give toy companies a chance to offer an eco-friendly, natural alternative to the plush dolls of today, whose synthetic fur is petroleum-based.
"It's time for all of us to look at eco-luxury products," said Jonelle Raffino, president of Biltmore World Trade. The soy fiber for the SoySilk dolls is made by Biltmore's sister company, South West Trading Co., a yarn company that Raffino started with her mother about five years ago.
While the SoySilk dolls are available for sale online and in some boutique hobby stores, the Pals had their big "coming out" party in February at the American International Toy Fair in New York, which is attended by thousands of toy buyers from around the globe.
Raffino said most of the companies at the fair that came across the SoySilk Pals had no idea that faux fur could be made out of soy.
Aurora World Inc., which makes stuffed animals including licensed characters like the Pink Panther and Gumby, was one of the companies that stumbled across the dolls.
"That's the first I ever heard of it," said Paul Roche, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Aurora, who has been in the toy business for almost 40 years.
Aurora is now considering using the soy fiber because one of its customers would prefer to sell plush dolls made with non-synthetic fibers, Roche said.
Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association, said the use of natural, sustainable materials to make toys is reflective of today's world, where children are growing up recycling and learning about the environment at school.
"It's an underlying trend that people have been asking for," she said of consumers looking for these products.
But not many toy companies are participating in the trend. Hasbro said it is not looking at using soy for its stuffed animals, but it said it does use recycled materials for its packaging.
Mattel Inc. said in a statement that it "is always investigating new and alternative materials." But the toy maker said it takes significant time and resources to sort through candidates in the area of "alternative substances," and that the materials must meet its standards for safety and durability.
Another issue keeping the toys from going mainstream is their price. Tofu Bear, at 16 inches, sells for almost $40. Aurora said that is three to four times the price of a comparable, synthetic plush doll.
"It is hard to communicate why it is worth paying a premium" for these environmentally friendly toys, said Harris Nesbitt analyst Sean McGowan, explaining why the market for eco-friendly toys remains small.
But niche or not, toy makers with an environmental bent insist consumers are eager to buy these products.
"We think that the time is right for the sustainability to come to the toy industry," said Mark Gross, director of communications for Seattle-based Matter Group.
Matter Group is coming out this month its Xeko Mission: Madagascar trading card game that teaches children about biodiversity and endangered species. The cards are made from recycled materials and can be recycled.
Matter Group was so intrigued with the SoySilk Pals after seeing them at the fair that the two companies are now working together. Biltmore is working on making plush versions of the animals featured in the Xeko trading card game.
"We would not do a plush line if it weren't for them," Gross said. "We only do things that can be ecologically sustainable."