JONATHAN - NOVEMBER 14, 2018
Recently a new Axol & Friends customer reached out to us concerned by the "Made in China" tag on her axol plushie. She felt uncomfortable with this discovery, and I certainly understand how it can seem contradictory that a socially-conscious brand committed to sustainabilty and ethical business, would produce their products in china. So I would like to open an honest dialogue about Chinese production, my business decisions, and share my vision for the future.
To explain fully, let me start with some background information. I created Axol & Friends with the goals of empowering youth, protecting the environment, and rescuing endangered species, all while instilling a sense of hope in the strongholds of community activism and collaboration, and sustainable alternatives to everyday products. With all these ambitions in mind, I set out to synthesize a cohesive model to achieve all of these goals or as many as possible. After a lot of thought, I landed on the idea of rare endangered animal characters and producing cute products with those characters. These products would fund after-school and school time programs that could educate and empower youth to save our world. Obviously, I knew these products needed to be sustainably produced.
Now, this is where the conflict arises...how do you start a new company with very little money to cover startup costs? This is the perennial issue for any startup, however the burden of initial costs is even worse for socially-conscious projects because cutting corners by using unethical, low-cost practices is contradictory to any sustainable mission. A mentor once told me "setting a goal of 100% sustainability is great, but don't let the fear of starting at less than perfect prevent you from ever starting." These words resonated with me when I was struggling to figure out how to launch Axol & Friends without any compromise given the lack of funding.
China certainly has a reputation for irresponsible regulation of manufacturing, which often allows Chinese companies to pollute or destroy the environment. (Which is something the Chinese government recognizes and is working to fight.) Additionally, there is a long history of disregard for human rights which permits inhumane labor standards and unethical treatment. I do not take these issues lightly. There is no room for compromise on human rights and environmental standards. I acknowledged early on that in order to get Axol & Friends from the idea stage to market, I needed to find an experienced partner that would be reasonably priced and could uphold the "Axol Ethos". Luckily, I found a unique manufacturing company that adhered to a strict code of ethics, environmental protection, and even offered recycled materials!
Our production partner, 3dToys, has over ten years of experience producing plushies and other toys in Hong Kong and mainland China. 3dToys has been audited by several organizations, including the International Council of Toy Industries, the Business Social Compliance Initiative, and Sedex. 3dToys is compliant with all US and EU regulations on toy production safety and manufacturing standards, and this partner is unique because they offer production with recycled materials, which is rare for the industry.
I have personally spoken with the owner of 3dToys about their business practices, employee wages and working conditions, and have seen numerous photos and videos. A close friend of mine has even gone in person to confirm the production facilities do in fact meet the Axol Ethos. When you buy an axol plushie, you can rest assured that we are meeting, and often exceeding, all standards of production, labor, and environmental protection. But that’s not it…there’s more!
My vision for Axol & Friends is to make production more empowering and impactful. To do this, I plan to partner with an NGO that provides employment and education programs to people who are overcoming severe atrocities and human rights violations. One of the main characters I created, Java, is a Pangolin, the world’s most trafficked animal. Pangolins like Java need to be rescued, and so do many men, women, and children across the world who are victims of human trafficking.
In addition to immediate rescue, these people need comprehensive long-term support and stability. Employment opportunities are the most empowering way to support those people in rebuilding their lives after being freed from human trafficking. I envision a day when I can open a studio somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America to transform lives and build stronger and safer communities. This is how we will grow our impact, this is how we will continue to make a difference in this world.
However, it is very expensive to start a new production facility, create outreach programs, and successfully operate anti-trafficking missions. These goals are ambitious, but with more hard work, collaboration, and financial support it is truly achievable. This is the future of Axol & Friends. Everyone who makes a purchase is contributing to this mission and joining our community of change-makers, activists, and environmental conservationists. Thank you for believing in us so far, and we hope you will grow alongside us as we continue on!
Jonathan R L Grosso