Mattel’s paper purchasing polices are weaker than Ken’s plastic handshake.

Poor Barbie. She’s survived fifty years of bad outfits, sudden beheadings at the hands of younger brothers and the wrath of feminists everywhere. Underneath that fixed smile is a steely determination that has pushed this character to the front of American popular culture and kept her there for generations. It’s one hell of a fairytale, but right now she’s caught in a scandal that threatens to shake the Dream House to its foundations.

On Tuesday Greenpeace released a dossier of new evidence showing how Mattel is wrapping the world’s most famous toy in rainforest destruction. Activists dressed as Ken and Barbie arrived in Los Angeles to send a clear message to Mattel’s employees: it’s time to cut deforestation out of your business for good.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Their response? “It is not the normal course of business to dictate where suppliers source materials.” However, they do agree to temporarily remove notorious rainforest destroyers Asia Pulp and Paper from their supply chain while an investigation takes place.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It’s progress, but they’re not there yet. Without a policy in place to protect rainforests the investigation has no teeth and the problem has not been solved.  Our campaign continues and Ken still hasn’t taken Barbie back.

We know they can do this. After a toxic lead paint scare in 2007 Mattel introduced tough regulations on its suppliers, requiring them to prove the absence of hazardous chemicals in factories and processing facilities. Almost overnight the company got a grip on a complex and technically challenging problem. It turns out there’s nothing like some bad publicity to make the impossible, well, suddenly possible.

And that’s the point. For Mattel, the unseen destruction of rainforests was not a threat to their brand as long as it remained unseen. By shifting their operations overseas the toy industry is outsourcing the harmful effects of its business, hoping that the distance between the chainsaw and the playroom is great enough to stop anyone from noticing. While companies in other sectors (like Nestle, Kraft and Unilever) have taken real action to cut deforestation from their products, the toy industry is content to bury its head in the sandbox.

Of course, the problem is distant. Indonesia has never held the celebrity appeal of the Amazon, never had a Sting or a Bono to draw attention to its plight. Its story is relatively recent too – most of the destruction began during the Suharto regime’s twilight years in the 1990s. Today the country loses nearly three million acres of forest every year to a rapacious industry that amasses huge fortunes for a few powerful businessmen. Asia Pulp and Paper has rushed to defend Mattel. With friends like these, who needs enemies? 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A quick look at the numbers also shows how Indonesia is on the front line in the battle against global warming. After the US and China, Indonesia is the world’s third largest source of manmade carbon pollution, largely due to deforestation. The draining, chopping and burning of forests and carbon-rich peatlands to create new plantations is sending massive amounts of pollution into the sky. This is speeding up global warming just as a series of extreme weather events takes hold, from Texas to Massachusetts. Forget the tigers for a second. Think about us.

And here, children, we come to the happy ending. Just like Mattel, companies like Asia Pulp and Paper can change pretty quickly. If their customers refuse to buy paper that comes from rainforest destruction then the companies will stop making it. Indonesia has vast areas of already cleared land that can be used for expanding pulpwood plantations. The paper industry can continue to grow while actually reducing its impact on our environment. All it needs is a clear signal from Mattel – and others like Hasbro and Disney – that they won’t allow deforestation to contaminate their products. Without that commitment, playtime is over.