Got Green Toys? They're Made in the USA

"Business exists to serve the community. We have an obligation to provide jobs."

--Robert von Goeben, President and Co-Founder, Green Toys, Inc.


Last spring when my grandbaby arrived, I figured by Christmas I would surely find some U.S.A.-made toys for gift-giving. And if I didn't find anything, my newly-minted-grandma reasoning continued, it wouldn't matter. What eight-month-old really needed Christmas toys? Puh-leez.

Now, of course, everything's changed. Aforementioned grandbaby giggles and babbles and notices and grabs. His enthusiasm for toys knows no bounds. He plays and plays. True, he's as excited about the crinkly shrink wrap around a new toy as the toy itself, but who cares? It's all such fun.

And so just a few days ago, with "Winter Wonderland" floating through Target's invisible loudspeakers, I fought the urge to push that red shopping cart toward the toy aisle and buy like a maniac. A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight / walking in a winter wonderland. Bring it on, Target.

Problem is, just about all those toys had been Made in China for America's own corporations, shipped over here in huge containers, and trucked to stores all over the country. The economic circle of life, interrupted, where toys arrive, but jobs and capital don't. The result? Our once-thriving middle class has shrunk:

Not even half of California's families are middle-class anymore as the recession and its aftermath widened the gap between rich and poor, according to a new report.

Three decades ago, 60 percent of California families could count themselves in what the Public Policy Institute of California calls the "middle-income" bracket. Not rich but doing reasonably well, the middle class formed a comfortable majority and shared the state's prosperity.

But the portion of middle-income families slipped to 49.7 percent last year, according to the nonpartisan research group's study.

Ah, yes. Three decades ago. Back in ancient times, before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), before "that giant sucking sound" could be heard: the sound of manufacturing leaving this country.

We could throw up our hands and weep, but why not instead become proactive? One purchase at a time, we can create change. We can vote with our wallets. We can encourage corporations to return those manufacturing jobs home. And we can spread the word about companies manufacturing products in the U.S.A.

For example: Mill Valley, California-based Green Toys, Inc. I came across Green Toys a few months ago at a local independent toy store, where nearly one-hundred percent of the inventory--thousands of toys, stocked floor to ceiling--were from China. The Green Toys display of sturdy, high quality fire engines, dump trucks and race cars stacked atop each other stood like a tower of hope in the import wasteland. An added bonus: Green Toys are manufactured from 100 percent recycled plastic milk containers (over 9 million have been used thus far). Various California locations play key roles: a plant in Los Angeles recycles the containers; a plastics factory in San Leandro makes those containers into toys; the completed toys are inspected and boxed at a plant in San Carlos. And the easy-to-open brown cardboard packaging (no shrink wrap here) is environmentally friendly. Ingenious.

The concept for Green Toys was hatched in 2007. While tinkering in his garage in Kentfield, California, self-described "venture capitalist and entrepreneur" Robert von Goeben came up with the idea for a toy made totally of recycled material. Already an accomplished inventor and businessman, von Goeben (who holds two patents and founded Silicon Valley's Propellerhead Studios, where he designed electronic games and toys) had been looking for a way to make a positive difference in the world.

"I was turning 45," he explained during a phone interview with CAMJ, "and my wife was saying 'do something that will contribute to the common good. Think of the product's impact on the world. If you make something here in the U.S.A., think of the jobs you'll create.'"

Von Goeben co-founded the company with his business partner, Laurie Hyman. Both invested $200,000 of their own money to start the company. They've never looked back. From the get-go, it's been a profitable endeavor for the partners. But the profits don't stop there.

When a product is designed as well as manufactured here, von Goeben explained, the results have a ripple economic effect. "For every one manufacturing job created, five to six ancillary jobs are also created. Everything from lab testing to packaging to the drivers needed to get the product out."

An environmentally conscious entrepreneur, von Goeben embraces "onshoring" and "reverse globalization." Products should be made in locales where they're to be sold, not manufactured offshore and shipped to distant markets. "I hope we have a lot of competition," he said. He'd be thrilled if other companies followed his lead and became truly green. "You can't be green if you're shipping from China."

The issue of safety has also contributed to the success of Green Toys. Parents today are extremely careful about the ingredients in the food they feed their children. In the same way, says Von Goeben, they want to know how the toys their children play with were made. The U.S. enforces the highest standards for its toys, requiring extensive lab testing. Other countries do not. That fact has sent safety-conscious parents (and grandparents) flocking to Green Toys. Since its launch, the start-up has experienced phenomenal growth. According to von Goeben, this year's sales are up "60 to 70 percent." Revenues for the privately-held company are reportedly between $5 and $10 million.

While it costs 20 to 30 percent more to manufacture here, von Goeben says parents are willing to pay more for his company's American-made, environmentally friendly products. In fact, Green Toys customers help determine the products. Sales reps throughout the country meet with consumers in a "bottom up, not top down" approach. Parents on the front lines with their children have definite requests. The company listens and develops new products accordingly. It's a winning strategy.

And so this story of holiday angst has a happy ending: thanks to the ambition and creativity of Robert von Goeben and Laurie Hyman, several Green Toys--wrapped in Made in the U.S.A. paper--sit under our family's Oregon-grown noble Christmas tree, awaiting our grandbaby's eager hands.

Green Toys are easily located online and at numerous retailers throughout the country, including Whole Foods.

Next up: Made in U.S.A. holiday gifts for $15? Bingo!