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Blog: Sustainability

Event merchandise doesn’t have to cost the earth

16 March 2024 minute read

Ian Dickie
Managing Director

Event merchandise is big business. Organisers, exhibitors and sponsors all use branded promotional items like pens, hoodies, bags and water bottles to get their name in front of their audience in the hope of staying to top-of-mind later on when it comes to purchasing decisions.

There are even YouTube channels where attendees collect every item of ‘swag’ they can get hold of at an event and then video themselves talking about the stuff they like best.

And people tell me I should get out more.

Unsurprisingly, research shows that most merch is incredibly wasteful and polluting. Much of it is cheap and plastic, adding significantly to the environmental footprint of your business event. Not only that, but people don’t hang on to this stuff long enough for it to have the marketing impact we tell ourselves it’s having.

Old-school merch is a lose / lose.

Fortunately, there is a better way. By replacing lazy, cookie-cutter plastic products with long-lasting, valued, ethically-sourced gifts or experiences, you can imprint your brand values into your customers’ conscience in ways that help the planet and your bottom line.

Why do marketing departments love merch so much?

I think it’s simply because we know it and it’s easy. It’s what we’ve always done.

As marketers, we need our brands to be seen. Whether you’re in tech, medical devices, finance or legal services – priority one is always to get people to remember your product, service or cause.

And branded merch seems like a great way to get your name out there and keep it in people’s consciousness. On the surface, it seems like a cost-effective way of growing brand awareness and recall.

A salesperson at a large promotional goods company recently told me that a branded hoodie, worn regularly over its lifecycle, can create over 6,000 impressions for less than $40!

Try getting that kind of CPI with advertising on Google or LinkedIn.

The theory goes that, everyone loves free stuff. And the more we order, the lower the unit cost. So we produce branded t-shirts, notebooks, mobile phone cases and everything else under the sun with our logo stamped on them. And it just works. Our fans get a free item, we get brand exposure.

Like all conventional wisdom though, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Most of us are seriously over-estimating our customers’ appetite for this stuff. Meanwhile the hidden cost of brand merch on the environment is huge.

Is event merchandise that bad?

Mostly, yes. Research shows that only 21% of branded and promotional items are kept for a significant amount of time (ie up to one year). More than half is given away, and 23% is immediately binned. That makes it far less effective than most event marketers imagine.

It is estimated that in the UK alone, GBP 1.69m is spent annually on branded promotional items, much of it given away at conferences and tradeshows.

And because this stuff is given away for free, it’s typically produced as cheaply as possible. This means the products are often made using unethical labour practices with cheap synthetic materials.

Take t-shirts and hoodies – which make up a huge percentage of branded merch distributed at customer conferences, product launches and other business events.

After being donated or trashed, this type of textile merch is either destroyed, burnt as fuel, deposited at landfills, or sold by the tonne to low-income countries where far too much of it ends up in landfill sites, or in rivers and oceans.

Not what we had in mind when we were placing our order.

What can we do instead?

Don’t despair. There are smarter choices we can make when it comes to embedding the positive experiences customers have at our events, and staying top-of-mind over the longer term.

But they do challenge us to think differently and be a bit more creative.

Let’s dive in.

1Don’t have any

Controversial I know. But at the risk of stating the obvious, the most sustainable merchandise option is NO merchandise. Even the most eco-friendly or ‘sustainable’ products have an impact.

And your attendees and customers know this. People everywhere are beginning to question what we might call the ‘culture of stuff’. They don’t need another keychain. They don’t need another plastic pen with your logo on it. Water bottle? Re-useable coffee cup? They probably have a dozen or more of those sitting around their home and office gathering dust.

So, the first question to ask yourself is: ‘do you actually need to give your attendees merch?’

In other words, could the goal of merch (to have attendees remember your event and their experience in a positive way and tell their friends about it) be achieved another way?

Is there such a thing as non-material merch?

Instead of handing out things, could you gift an experience that would be memorable (and socially shareable) while having a smaller footprint?

Of course, in order for this to have the same impact as physical merch, you want to give an experience that reminds people of your brand on a regular basis.

The specifics will depend on what your company does, but could you (for instance) give away a virtual experience like as yoga or pilates class, or a gathering of some kind?

Gifting subscriptions that repeat regularly will keep you top of mind.

You could also make charitable donations in your customers’ names to organisations that align with your values and theirs. From Oxfam to animal rescue, to medical research – most charities now offer creative, personalised and meaningful gift options you can give to recipients who don’t need more stuff but would like to feel they’re making a difference.

2Ditch single-use materials

If forgoing physical merch just isn’t an option, then you need to make sure any items you do produce are made of the right stuff.

By opting for products made from materials like recycled paper, bamboo, or organic cotton, which are environmentally friendly, you are helping reduce the use of harmful non-renewable resources and eventual waste in the environment.

Biodegradable promotional products won’t end up in landfills or oceans like traditional single-use items.

Better still, opt for long-lasting materials.

A great example I saw recently is giveaway notebooks made from stone paper.

Stone paper is essentially a re-writable, sustainable alternative to tree paper. You can brand them exactly as you would a regular conference notebook – but people loved the fact that it can be erased and re-used hundreds of times.

This is a classic merch win / win. Not only is a stone paper notebook more environmentally friendly, the fact that it lasts longer makes it more noticeable and helps it realise as many as 15x more impressions for your brand than you could expect from a regular, one-and-done notebook.

New eco-materials are hard for non-experts to evaluate and there’s no shortage of greenwashing among promotional goods companies today. So take care to work with
a B-corp certified brand merchandise producer who can guide you in the right direction.

Examples include Project Merchandise or Fluid in the UK, or Fairware in Canada.

3Stop timestamping your merch

We tend to add the year (and often the dates and venue) to promotional merch for our events. Probably we think attendees will consider it cool to show that they were part of our conference or meeting this year. Maybe we think it adds a kind of souvenir value.

But here’s the thing. Your customer conference is not a Taylor Swift tour.

If you’re stuck with 1000 ‘Women in Tech 2023 San Francisco’ t-shirts, what exactly are you going to do with them post-conference?

You could give them to a charity, but very few people outside of your own clan actually want discarded corporate merch.

Leave the time-sensitive information off the shirts, mugs and other swag and at least you can use it again next year.

4Give things that people will cherish

Of course the key to keeping your brand around long enough to get those thousands of positive impressions is to give people items that are beautiful, functional and different. In other words, merch people will actually cherish.

Image of lots of beanded pens

The world does not need another ‘meh’ plastic pen with your logo on it

Most promotional gifts are more persishable than cherishable.

Take pens, far and away the most popular promotional item at every business event. It’s estimated that about 10 billion pens are thrown away in the United States each year, with roughly 1.6 billion hitting the trash in the UK.

Be honest. How many cheap giveaway pens have you lost or tossed this year?

I bet you use pens. I bet you need a pen most days. The trouble is, most of these pens are cheap, unremarkable and you just don’t care.

Give people a really good pen – one which writes nicely, feels good, looks stylish and has an origin story that reflects well on your company – chances are people will hold on to that pen.

In other words, if you’re going to give away merchandise, make sure it’s something your audience will cherish and they will love to be seen with.

This brings us to the other big beast in the merchandise jungle. The ubiquitous tote bag.

An event without tote bags is like a year without a new superhero movie. Don’t expect to see it happen any time soon.

Marketers love tote bags because people effectively wear them long after the event is over, and other people are intrigued by them.

Done well, a tote bag can be the holy grail of sustainable merch: cherished and promotionally effective.

But there are some dos and don’ts.

Don’t just plaster your logo all over it, but play around with messaging. You’re aiming for ‘witty’, ‘playful’, ‘intriguing’ and, ideally ‘gorgeous’.

Whisper it, but bags are great for virtue signalling, so if you are a brand that needs to convey ethics, a commitment to social justice or the environment , a tote is a great way for people to show off those values as their own.

But, keep in mind that the humble conference tote bag is also the poster child for unintended environmental consequences.

When reusable bags hit the mainstream in the 2010s, they were successful at reducing the number of plastic bags people used in their daily lives.

But now in 2024, most people own dozens of reusable bags. Totes have gone from solution to problem.

A cotton tote needs to be used something like 74 times before it improves on the environmental cost of single-use plastic bags.

So opt for recycled plastic instead of virgin organic cotton. Avoid light colours as these will look dirty faster and shorten the bag’s lifecycle.

5Make sure it’s fair

It should go without saying that your event can’t stand for social justice and sustainability by handing out promotional items manufactured by people for poverty wages in unsafe conditions in a grim factory or sweatshop half-way around the world.

So, whatever you’re giving away, start by making sure it’s fair trade, and that you or your provider can show evidence of a robust, ethical supply chain all the way from the harvest of the raw materials, right up to the merch table at your event.

Whatever your messaging is, I’m betting it’s not ‘we inadvertently support child labour and modern slavery!’

Again, talk is cheap and greenwashing is free – so insist on suppliers being certified by a substantial authority like FairTrade, the ILO, BSCI etc. And always check that your chosen provider is listed on the accrediting body’s web site – not just the other way around. There are a few players in the merchandise business who would make the Cosa Nostra blush.

6Give away products that actively encourage more sustainable behaviour

Who was it that said ‘become the change you want to see in the world?’ It was either Mahatma Gandhi or Oprah.

Either way, think about giving people objects that actually encourage sustainable behaviours and spread awareness about the impact of things like single-use plastics on the environment.

By giving promotional merchandise such as reusable coffee cups, you not only help reduce plastic and paper waste but also encourage a sustainable lifestyle.

Whatever you do, stay focused on who your attendees are and what will be genuinely useful or delightful for them.

This will lead you to create items and experiences that your stakeholders really cherish, meaning it will hang around long enough to promote your brand.

Sustainable merch is a win-win.