Many of us will remember playing with LEGO bricks as a child - 75 billion were sold in 2016 alone. From its origins in 1932 in a modest Danish carpentry workshop to today’s position as a global toy giant, the brand has propelled itself as the essential building block for a child’s playtime experience. In the 1960s, the LEGO group decided to make the move from wooden to plastic bricks to make it safer for children and improve its performance and durability. However, in the 57 years since, plastic production and consumption has ballooned and more new sustainable alternatives are required. LEGO, a company with a focus on innovation, yet retaining a family ownership is taking some significant steps to improving its sustainability and bio-based ingredients in its bricks. To find out more, our reporter Emily O’Dowd interviewed Tim Brooks the Vice President for Environmental Responsibility who gave us an exclusive insight into LEGO’s latest bio-based initiatives and what consumers can expect in the coming years.
In 2012, LEGO ( @LEGO_Group ) decided to change tact and reconsider their plastic consumption. This has led to an ambitious re-think about the materials used for their products. Now the company are committed to use only sustainable materials in its products by 2030 and in 2016, produced prototype elements made from sustainably sourced plastic derived from wheat.
Tim has been working for LEGO since 2012 and has an extensive background in CSR working for large retail brands like Tesco. During his time at the giant retailer he was approached by LEGO to develop their sustainability strategy. After many years spent living in London, Tim and his family were keen for a change and a challenge which influenced his move to Denmark to work in LEGO’s head office.
LEGO's Vice President for Materials and the Sustainable Materials Centre, Nelleke van der Puil will be a guest speaker at this year's Bio-Based Live Europe conference in Amsterdam! 31st May - 1st June.
Tim emphasises that his main aim working at LEGO is to prioritise and invest in the most valuable way to engage with society. “As a company with such strong values and heritage it has naturally led us to progress with environmental factors because we feel it’s the right thing to do. For many years we have focused on our own operations, which is still a very core focus of the business, but it only makes up 10 percent of our overall CO2 emissions and global footprint. By contrast, 75 percent of our environmental impact is caused throughout our supply chain.” He stresses that “it is important that we balance these two aspects and act where we have greatest leverage as well as the greatest impact”
For practical and financial reasons plastic has been the preferred option for LEGO until now because it’s safe, strong and colourful. One key area raised by Tim is that not enough consumers are educated about what plastic is and where is comes from. “Plastic has got a bad name for disposable business packaging and it’s what we do with it that is important rather than the material itself.” He adds: “we as society, tend to criticise the material rather than its use.”
In order to improve consumer perceptions towards plastic consumption, LEGO are keen to focus on innovation and make it an aspect of their business that all consumers will be able to buy into. “We don’t want to make it an either or situation”, they want people to be influenced by the better performance and identical pricing so that sustainability becomes the only option for consumers. In various tests, LEGO have learnt that younger children are an easier audience to engage with about sustainability concerns. “I guess the obvious answer would be to sell wind turbine sets and recycling trucks, but at the end of the day kids just want to play rather than being forced to play something. You can’t rebuild the message into a toy, however there are other ways to do it. We try to create a toy that kids love and can be creative with – rather than using it as a tool to educate them with. It’s about finding smarter ways to spread this message.”
For over 50 years, LEGO elements have been moulded using the highest quality plastics which are some of the most durable, safe and functional materials available in order to provide the best play experiences for millions of children around the world. Yet, the oil-based plastic used in LEGO elements is not a long term solution for the planet. Therefore, by 2030, their ambition is that products will be made of plastic sourced from sustainable sources.
“I think the biggest challenge is finding materials that are better and sustainable. Whilst there are plenty of bio-based solutions, they don’t always provide a better performance or deliver the quality that we need. That’s an ongoing challenge, but definitely an exciting one. We need to find those new materials or innovative ways of making things.”
Vice President for Materials and the Sustainable Materials Centre, Nelleke van der Puil, explains: “We are on a journey towards a more sustainable materials platform, and we need to find replacements for more than 20 different types of plastic. The journey ahead of us is unknown – we approach it with an open mind and do not exclude any route towards more sustainable materials.
When asked what Tim enjoys most about his role with the business, he answered: “It’s the variety. It’s such a fun company to work for - one day we can be flying over a wind farm and then the next can be explaining how we can put more solar panels on our factories. Then on the third day you can be out in a corn field talking to a farmer about how their corn can be used in a smart way to make LEGO bricks. There’s such a vast variety of topics and days which is enhanced by the people that are so committed to the values of the company.”
Whilst these early prototypes will never reach the market, they are an important step towards a sustainable material platform and encouraging other companies to do the same. LEGO now has over 70 employees working on test moulding, and brick prototypes and continue to be excited by the progress. It is clear that LEGO are very conscious about their environmental impact which is neatly summarised by Tim who explains that the company’s passion is “to engage with children. We have a motto to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. We want to influence the kids today to influence the adults of the future.”
You can see their latest press release here about their mission to protect the planet by teaming up with LEGO Batman.
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