The ethics of toys

Rebecca Bamford ’97 and Trevor Westerhoff ’97


Winter 2010

Rebecca Bamford ’97 and Trevor Westerhoff ’97

Rebecca Bamford ’97 and Trevor Westerhoff ’97

Wanting a simpler, less stressful life for their young family, Rebecca Bamford ’97 and Trevor Westerhoff ’97 decided to move across Canada and open a new specialty retail store in an old rust-belt city at the bottom of the recession. 

Really.

In Vancouver, Westerhoff was working in the city’s thriving film industry. Once the couple began having children, his 60-hour weeks as a production coordinator became more frustrating than fulfilling. 

“We thought that if we downsized our living expenses by moving to a less expensive city, we could afford to open a business and still live in a modest house,” Bamford said. “We’d be able to work together and parent our two daughters together.

“We decided on toys,” she continued, “because we were having trouble finding ones we liked for our kids.”

So they drew up a business plan for a high-quality toy store in Hamilton, Ont. In September 2008 they sold their house in Vancouver. Then the bottom dropped out of the economy. 

“We just had to go for it,” Westerhoff said. “It was a leap of faith.”

In May 2009, in a building they leased and renovated near their new home, they opened Citizen Kid.

“The store’s name reflects our belief that people can be good citizens and can teach their kids to be good citizens by paying more to buy toys that are made well, with care for the environment, that aren’t disposable, and whose maker is fairly paid,” Bamford explained.

Toys like tool sets and jump ropes made from recycled plastic milk jugs, stuffed animals hand-knit from natural fibers by a women’s cooperative in Peru, wooden blocks colored with food-grade dyes, and naturally scented modeling dough, just for starters. And the bags to carry them all home are biodegradable. 

What Citizen Kid customers won’t find are toys that require batteries, electricity or that are licensed, like Barbie, Batman and Thomas the Tank Engine. 

“Those things aren’t inherently bad,” Bamford said. “But we want to provide an alternative—playthings without attachments to mass culture, toys that allow the child to decide how to play with them, rather than the toys telling the child how to play.”

“But we try not to preach,” Westerhoff added, “because our house isn’t pure either.”

They do talk to their customers, though, describing where and how the toys are made and why they’re good for kids’ imaginations.

“We try to educate and convince people that it’s worth the time and expense to be more thoughtful,” said Bamford.

As the store’s chief buyer, she said she works hard to offer toys in every price range. “Everyone should be able to live by their ideals and make the ethical choice.” 

For most, making the ethical toy choice will mean “having less and appreciating it more,” Westerhoff said, which can extend the ethic another way. “The best kind of recycling is to pass along a toy or swap toys with other families. Then it’s more of a community toy.”

Toy shoppers seem willing to hear that message. In polling conducted by the Hamilton Spectator, Citizen Kid was nominated for a Reader’s Choice award in three categories.

“We’ve translated into a business how we try to live in our family,” said Westerhoff. 

Learn more about Citizen Kid toys at www.citizenkid.ca and its blog, www.wordpress.citizenkid.com.