Building A Better Future: LEGO’s Quest for Sustainable Materials
Originally published on April 4, 2018
This may very well be the first (and only) LEGO I would gladly step on. In early March, the Danish company announced they are releasing their very first plant-based sustainable bricks at the end of 2018. LEGO has been on a long-standing quest to find alternatives to their oil-based plastic products that are a staple to many children around the world. It seems like they may have finally found the solution to sustainability. The word LEGO derives from the Danish words “leg godt” meaning “play well.” Founded in 1932 by Kirk Kristiansen, a Danish toy maker, LEGO had very humble beginnings. Promoting individuality and creativity, their LEGO bricks have become childhood classics and are the building blocks to LEGO’s modern day empire. Today, the company holds lucrative contracts with Disney and Warner Brother’s to reproduce popular television and movie characters into LEGO bricks. Their LEGO City Line, as well as their DC Comics Line, just became movie blockbusters, as the basis of “The LEGO Movie” and “The LEGO Batman Movie.”
Production had already begun on ‘sustainable pieces,’ made with polyethylene, which is a soft and durable plastic. These pieces are naturally sourced from sugar cane, and make up some of the botanical pieces found in LEGO’s vast brick collection. Currently, these polyethylene pieces only make up 1-2% of LEGO’s product offering, the rest is still oil based. However, by 2030 The LEGO Group hopes to have 100% of their products and packaging naturally sourced.
As our planetary situation becomes more dire, many companies are making significant changes to their practices to reduce their carbon footprints in order to combat the effects of global warming and the depletion of natural resources. Recently, LEGO added to its vast collection of high profile company partnerships by collaborating with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is an agency committed to protecting the world’s endangered wildlife. At the same time, LEGO ended their 50 year old partnership with Shell, the US subsidiary of the second largest oil company in the world. These bold rebranding moves were accompanied with the launch of the LEGO Sustainable Materials Center, which is a research based department focusing on reducing LEGO’s carbon footprint.
LEGO has invested 1 billion DKK (Danish currency, equivalent to $164,540,000) on further research and development. The investment funds the 4,000 square meter research center known as the Sustainable Materials Center. This is one small step on the road to achieving full sustainability, which seems to be the goal outlined in their sustainability 2030 plan. The LEGO Group has also taken steps concerning their energy usage, where they have invested in a wind farm. Efforts to reduce packaging, as well as waste materials, and pursuing new materials for their products that are better for the environment is at the core of their current company image.
Concerned not only for the environment but also for the future of their customers, another group was launched by The LEGO Group to help boost their media presence. “Build the Change” is a global initiative that connects The LEGO Group to the children that enjoy using their products. LEGO was inspired by the hundreds of letters they would receive from happy or concerned users. Many children would share their passions about conservation, especially in wildlife, thus sparking the close ties to the WWF, and proving that The LEGO Group is doing their best to put out the greatest possible products for their users.
Investors and executives are important when considering a company’s future, and many of them have been active in making sustainability decisions as the company moves forward. However, The LEGO Group has also made efforts to take it a step further, and acknowledged the end users: the children that play with and enjoy the products, and the type of world we are leaving behind for them. This idea was the main motivation for these initiatives, as the company continues their research to find sustainable solutions for all aspects of their business.
Philanthropy is not a new concept to LEGO. Throughout its existence, the company has formed many partnerships, notably with UNICEF in 2015 to protect children’s rights and change the way in which children learn by supporting UNICEF’s Children’s Rights and Business Principles. This ten step charter lays out actions that companies can take to promote children’s rights, and LEGO notably donated materials to the staff to reach 78,000 children affected by conflict in Ukraine and Iraq. LEGO has also been strong a advocate for their products to be educational tools as well as toys by creating the LEGO Education center and providing research and materials to promote LEGO product usage in early childhood development and in classrooms to teach valuable skills, such as problem solving, teamwork, and creativity. With their educational and sustainability initiatives, LEGO is hoping to inspire this generation to make positive and innovative changes in the world.
In May 2017, The LEGO Group boasted another proud accomplishment by becoming reliant on 100% sustainable energy, three years ahead of schedule. The corporation spent 6 billion DKK on offshore wind farms, which became their primary source of renewable energy. To celebrate their accomplishment, LEGO built the world’s largest wind turbine made of LEGO bricks, and made their way into the Guinness Book of World Records after it’s reveal in Liverpool, UK. They also challenged children around the world to come up with their own clean energy solutions. Even though they are passionate about positive change, there are some questionable truths about their progress.
In a statement reported to BioPlastics Magazine, the Director in Materials Soren Kristiansen, stated that the company actually had no “100% solution” yet regarding the full replacement of their oil-based plastic products and their current packaging products. This statement is rather alarming, since this type of company alteration and stakeholder promise is huge. Even with a positive track record in implementation of clean energy solutions, this revolutionary implementation could change the way we produce toys globally, and could help pave new ways of thinking in other industries. And though the company is are making all of these promises, they are making them with a grain of salt. Relatively questionable for us stakeholders, who have watched LEGO’s progress, and are invested (literally and figuratively) in their success.
Another loophole in the “100% sustainability” promise the LEGO Group is taking advantage of exclusion of their theme parks from the sustainability 2030 initiative. The LEGOLAND theme parks are owned and operated by the British amusement park company, Merlin Entertainments. These theme parks could benefit from research and development for more sustainable alternatives to their maintenance, building, waste creation, and other aspects of the day-to-day operations of the business. To claim a truly sustainable company, they should be focusing on their image from all sides. Having their name on these theme parks should mean they invest some time and energy in transforming their operations to be more sustainable as well.
No company is perfect, especially when taking strides into the still waters of the sustainable future. These companies should be considered heroes and pioneers. It is also highly beneficial for us, as product users and stakeholders, to take a close look at these promises. We can always do something to make a company better. I look forward to this revolution that The LEGO Group has proposed, and I do hope that they help foster a generation of well informed children as we build a more sustainable future. Keep your eye out for their first plant-based products, scheduled to hit shelves later this year.
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