By Simon Mainwaring
Flashback to the 1960s when plastics were the future and companies proudly advertised “Better living through chemistry.” It was obviously a different time with different understandings and attitudes towards petrochemicals. So when the Danish giant Lego partnered with Shell, it no doubt seemed like a perfect fit between a toy company built on playful engineering partnering with a science, engineering and chemistry company that provided the company with its raw materials.
Flash ahead to the present day and we quite obviously live in a very different world. Decades of unfettered petrochemical production and consumption have pushed our climate and environment to the brink of irreparable harm with parents becoming more concerned about what type of Earth their children will inherit.
Seizing on this concern, Greenpeace sought to get at Shell’s plan to drill in the Arctic through one of its long-standing partners, Lego, with a creative digital video that showed a pristine Arctic landscape comprised of the iconic toy bricks being decimated by an inflow of toxic black oil. The video quickly gathered 6 million views, and demonstrated both the swift, compelling capabilities of well-executed social media activism, while also showing how in a hyper-connected, hyper-transparent digital world, companies must be very selective about whom they do business with. When it came time to renew its contract with Shell, Lego ultimately chose not to and ended a partnership of over 50 years.
In a smart bit of branding and a better bit of business, Lego sought to regain the narrative and re-assert its long-held positive reputation by undertaking an ambitious suite of sustainable goals for itself, while also developing key strategic partnerships with agencies like the World Wildlife Fund.
The centerpiece of this initiative is Lego’s Sustainable Materials Center, which is expected to recruit more than 100 employees in an effort to find and implement sustainable alternatives to existing materials by 2030. And just to prove how dedicated they are, Lego recently announced that they’ll be putting 1 billion DKK behind the cause. This endeavor will also extend to packaging and end-of-use scenarios for the colorful bricks, characters and accessories.
As Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO and President of the LEGO Group , puts it:
“This is a major step for the LEGO Group on our way towards achieving our 2030 ambition on sustainable materials. We have already taken important steps to reduce our carbon footprint and leave a positive impact on the planet by reducing the packaging size, by introducing FSC certified packaging and through our investment in an offshore wind farm.
Now we are accelerating our focus on materials.”
Lego’s comprehensive efforts also include fostering creative partnerships, such as those with the WWF wherein both groups are working to determine a sustainable materials strategy. This includes aligning on a common definition of what sustainability means in the toymaker’s context and encompasses all aspects of the product, its materials, production and packaging, and ultimately, how and where it ends its “life.”
By committing to a more sustainable tomorrow, Lego wants to ensure that future generations of children can dream and build all the exotic and breathtaking natural worlds of those that came before them while also creating worlds not yet imagined.
According to Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, owner of the Lego Group:
“Our mission is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. We believe that our main contribution to this is through the creative play experiences we provide to children. The investment announced is a testament to our continued ambition to leave a positive impact on the planet, which future generations will inherit. It is certainly in line with the mission of the LEGO Group and in line with the motto of my grandfather and founder of the LEGO Group, Ole Kirk Kristiansen: Only the best is good enough.”
To bring this mission to life, Lego launched Build the Change, a global initiative which was inspired in part by the hundreds of letters the company receives from children excited to share their ideas, many of which involve environmental and animal welfare.
Jennifer DuBuisson, senior manager, environmental sustainability at LEGO, elaborates, "A few years ago we got this letter from a 9-year-old that read, ‘When I grow up, I want my kids to grow up in a healthy world. They (children) are our No. 1 stakeholder and we need to ensure that we are working to meet their expectations of our products and our company."
Lego’s deep and comprehensive commitment to sustainable change and honoring their stakeholders shows how it’s possible for a brand to rebuild even after a PR crisis. For Lego, it involved a clear mission statement informed by core values, which was then backed up by real world behavior, including a retooled supply chain, that ably supported their stated intent.
Given that Lego reaches close to 100 million children in 140 countries, it’s a staggering opportunity to help shape and define a generation of builders, makers and dreamers that can positively impact both the culture and the planet.