The pandemic slowed down the $64 billion swag industry. Conferences are back, but do the cheap water bottles and stress balls need to come back with them?

Can we finally kill off cheap, disposable conference swag?
[Source Photos: Getty]

After a two-year hiatus, conferences are starting back up. Many of us are usually excited in order to put on our best work outfits plus gather along with colleagues in person. But is anybody looking forward to a return of the cheap swag–the ugly water bottles, flimsy pens, ill-fitting t-shirts–we used to lug home in pre-pandemic times?



For decades, companies have taken advantage of live events to hand out promotional products. Sometimes, they use swag to attract new customers or in order to entice prospective employees; they might gift branded goods to employees or clients to cultivate loyalty. All of this has given birth to a global industry that pumps out a whopping $64 billion in swag, sold by suppliers like 4imprint and Crestline , which will take a brand’s logo plus slap it on almost anything.

Brands generally try to reach as many people as possible within the fixed budget, so most swag-makers sell low-priced, low-quality items within bulk. There’s mounting evidence that the majority of these products quickly end up in the trash. But you don’t need data to know this: How many occasions have you chucked out a free calendar or flash drive a company shoved at you?

There is been growing concern about the fragile state of our own planet, from climate change to the plastic pollution crisis . And while swag will be cheap, this exacts an enormous toll on our planet. As I reported in a 2018 article, manufacturing these goods requires extracting raw materials and spewing warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And since most of these items cannot be recycled, they will ultimately be incinerated or clog up landfills. All so that a brand can fleetingly expensive its logo at you.



It doesn’t have to be like this particular. The pandemic was a reset button, prompting society to reevaluate many aspects of life, from shopping habits in order to whether offices are really necessary . COVID-19 caused the particular swag business to scale back as events were cancelled, but this fall, they’re coming back with the vengeance. Manufacturers, manufacturers, and consumers now have an opportunity to rethink whether we want these inexpensive, planet-destroying items in our lives.

Change might be around the corner. Since I wrote my previous story, a wave of businesses has popped up, offering more sustainable alternatives to swag that will help brands achieve the same objectives.

advertising campaign

The data is in: We don’t need swag

It has always been hard for brands to figure out regardless of whether swag is really helping spread awareness. It’s impossible to find out whether handing out a stress ball imprinted with a logo will stand out in the recipient’s mind, especially when they already have a bag full associated with similar products. “Giving out swag has become an industry norm, ” says Chad Hickey, founder and CEO of Givsly , the four-year-old startup that helps organizations gain brand awareness through charitable giving, rather than swag. “If a competing company is giving out swag, these people feel the particular need to do the same, even if it’s not clear what the return on investment may be. ”

But millennials and Gen Z say sustainability is one of their top concerns and cheap, disposable products are anything but eco-friendly. In recent years, young people have spoken out about fast fashion’s calamitous impact on the environment. Swag offers a lot in common with fast fashion, yet since consumers aren’t buying it themselves, it’s difficult for them to signal that they will don’t want it.

Givsly has come up with clever ways to show that people are ready to ditch promotional items. The startup’s business model revolves around persuading companies in order to spend part of their marketing budget on donations. The idea is to give recipients a chance to give money to the cause instead of receiving a material item. At first, companies had been hesitant to do this, for fear that recipients wouldn’t find a donation compelling or memorable, so Hickey encouraged businesses to give all of them a choice between the two. Givsly tracked the outcome and found that among 40% plus 60% of people chose the donation over the swag product.


To further make the point, Givsly placed large bins in offices around the country, asking workers to throw out unused, unwanted swag, so it could be passed on to people at homeless shelters. They quickly filled up, and Givsly collected 42 enormous containers full associated with water containers, notebooks, and T-shirts. “Companies spent cash making these products, and these types of bins show that they were as good as throwing money away, ” says Hickey.

Skipping swag altogether

Givsley has right now convinced Fox, Yelp, plus Waze, among dozens of other companies, to use its platform. Hickey says that for these donations to effectively replace swag, they need to help the particular brands achieve their goals, which are varied. In some cases, they brought swag in order to job fairs to encourage potential employees to apply for positions or to get prospective customers to sign up with regard to a mailing list. Within others, they simply wanted to use gifts to provide consumers or even employees a positive feeling regarding the brand.


Givsly provides used technology to meet these goals. To opt for the donation and pick the charity they would like to give to, people scan the QR code where these people input their own email address, allowing the company in order to follow plan them. If they want, individuals can also share why they chose that particular charitable organisation. Givsly has found that will some people take advantage of this comment box to express how grateful they are that the company enabled them to provide to a cause they feel strongly about, like fighting climate change. “Many people wish they could donate more to charities, but don’t have the resources to do so, ” says Hickey. “This approach allows these to support causes on someone else’s dime. ”

If a person must, present fewer, better swag

Simon Polet, who founded a sustainable swag company called Merchery, says that there are usually some companies that are very resistant to giving up promotional items because they will believe this actually offers an effect on customer or employee engagement. And indeed, based on Givsly’s data, 40% to 60% of people might, indeed prefer a material object in order to something even more ephemeral, like a donation. In 2018, Polet decided to launch a company that would address some of the problems in the sway market, and sell products that are more sustainable and ethically source than traditional promotional items.


Merchery sells things like Yeti tumblers, Patagonia plus Arc’Teryx jackets, and Pela compostable phone cases, all of which can be emblazoned with a brand’s logo. These products are significantly a lot more expensive than other promotional product businesses. Its drinking water bottles range in price through $6. 24 for a plastic one to the $94. 71 self-cleaning one from Larq. Meanwhile, some other swag manufacturers like 4Imprint typically charge less than a dollar per bottle.

But Polet makes the case that recipients judge brand names based on the products they hand out, so it makes sense to invest in products that are good quality and well designed. And provided that brands have limited budgets, he argues that will brands that want to give things away should be more strategic about whom they target. “A big part of the problem is that companies are just throwing items at lots of people today, hoping it will have some impact, and expecting many people in order to throw them out, ” he says. “We think this makes more sense to have a list associated with clients or even potential talent that really matter and give all of them really nice things. ”

Polet also believes that the fundamental problem with swag is that the finish consumer does not actually choose the product, which is usually why products they receive so often go to waste. Merchery provides launched a platform that will allows companies to create a simple website where people can choose from a couple of gift options to find one that they want. This works particularly well regarding things like holiday gifts intended for clients or employees. “Even if a company creates a beautiful Yeti water bottle or even Patagonia jacket, the employee may not would like that item, ” Polet says. “So, why not provide them the choice, so these people can get something they will certainly actually make use of for a long time? In the end, returning to a product over plus over is the way in order to really develop loyalty. ”


Still, Polet realizes that this many sustainable alternative is no item at all. Plus ultimately, that will might end up being the best solution. “I’m fully aware that promotional products are driving the planet to the brink of disaster, ” Polet says. “I’m all to get the sector shrinking, even though that affects us. ” Meanwhile, Merchery is looking into allowing businesses to add branded experiences to their portfolio of options. That’s the surefire way to be truly zero-waste.



By Ellie

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