Fast Company’s "Cheap Conference Swag" Article Struck a Nerve but Missed Its Mark — commonsku Blog

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Fast Company’s "Cheap Conference Swag" Article Struck a Nerve but Missed Its Mark
Here's the thing about that piece on swag by Elizabeth Segran in Fast Company: it missed the mark. 
Where Fast Company is right: No one wants the return of useless low-quality conference swag that ends up in the trash. No one. Not recipients, not buyers, and (surprise!) not sellers.
Where Fast Company is wrong: Conflating useless swag with a branded merchandise industry that has evolved. 
Liz Segran with Fast Company just published an article, “Can we finally kill off cheap disposable conference swag?” She writes: “Conferences are back, but do the cheap water bottles and stress balls need to come back with them?” 
Liz initially wrote an article in Fast Company in 2018 titled, “It’s time to stop spending billions on cheap conference swag.” This article started a relationship between Liz and us, and we invited her to join us on our podcast (the skucast) and later at one of our events, skucon , to discuss this topic.
We agreed with some of Liz’s points then, and respectfully disagreed with others, but we particularly disagree with her now, only because there’s more to the story.
Here’s why.
The pandemic did change the promotional products industry. Conferences disappeared, and with them, a purge happened in the promotional products industry: cheap, thoughtless, and unintentional selling washed away an entire sector of the industry. Buyers also became pickier as they had tighter budgets. Campaigns that demonstrated clear ROI became the standard. 
In fact, you could say that what emerged from the pandemic is the tale of two industries. 
At one time, the promotional products industry was filled with a host of businesses who made and sold swag with no (or very little) thought to the impact on our planet.  Words like sustainable, and eco-friendly were not yet common coin in mainstream business. Back then, both sellers and buyers bought and sold with little regard for downstream effects, and thus, the “trinkets and trash” business earned its name. 
But today, a different industry exists. As the world became more conscientious about impact, sustainability affected every sector, including the promotional products industry. An entirely new crop of entrepreneurs, makers, agencies, and leaders emerged. The “trinkets and trash” industry grew up, outgrowing even the “swag” moniker (stuff we all get) a namesake that would evolve into something much more highly coveted: the branded merch industry.
Semantics aside, that’s the tale of another, different industry altogether.  
The New Branded Merch Industry
Liz’s article cites one of those new classes of entrepreneurs, our friend Simon Polet and his great business in Belgium called Merchery which sells sustainable swag (listen to our chat with Simon here ). But Simon is not the sole voice in this fight. Simon represents a whole swath of conscientious promotional products companies that now put the planet first. At our first ever Product Summit: Sustainability , a conference focused solely on sustainable promotional product solutions, participants and attendees came from all over the world and represented some of the most conscientious sellers of promotional products, including Eco Promotional Products , Fairware , and ECO Imprints who spoke on how to “Sell Sustainably and Avoid Brandfill .” 
These companies existed before the pandemic and were created as a model as the anti-trinkets-and-trash industry, staking a claim on the ground of sustainability to sell smarter solutions. In fact, it was our friend Denise Taschereau, co-founder of Fairware who first coined the term, “brandfill,” notable because this term came from within the industry, created by an industry practitioner who wanted to fight senseless spending by buyers with a more strategic selling method that was smarter for the planet and more impactful for brands.
And for an outside perspective, probably the gold standard of perspective, the B Corp list in this new promotional products industry is growing rapidly: promotional products agencies like TwelveNYC and Harper + Scott make sustainability actually beautiful, combining incredible design with sustainable sourcing, all while absolutely nailing brand objectives through strategic intent. 
And on the manufacturing side, examples abound: Raining Rose , PCNA’s ProudPath , Gemline , SanMar , Cutter & Buck , alphabroder , and many, many more. Though many of these companies pre-existed in the “trinkets and trash” days, they revolutionized their own companies –a much heavier lift– completely upending their sourcing and product selection to make sustainability a priority. 
And this is worth mentioning: for the promotional products industry, sustainability is more than the types of materials we use. Creating a more sustainable industry means impacting the lives of others which includes our local communities and manufacturing communities overseas, all throughout the supply chain. For a sterling example of how merch companies positively impact people’s lives, check out our discussion with Cotopaxi CEO Davis Smith and his talk on “supply chain philanthropy,” here’s a quick clip: 
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And not only do astounding makers and agencies exist within this new industry, there are now swag companies who specialize in rescuing obsolete merch from landfills like our friend Ben Grossman and his ingenious company, Swagcycle (check out our interview with Ben, “How SwagCycle Keeps Obsolete Merch Out of Landfills” here ). Which means that when a promotional products salesperson approaches a buyer, not only do they have a solution that will help them achieve their brand objectives but they now even have a discard solution to upsell or recycle what doesn’t get used. 
How’s that for full-service sustainable solutions?
And we could go on and on and on with examples from companies who have since entered the industry like MiiR , tentree , and more. 
The list we cite here is small, only because we don’t have the space or time to list the hundreds of companies and thousands of conscientious sustainably-focused salespeople who thrive in this industry, who daily steer clients away from thoughtless merch toward sustainable solutions or even (gasp!) solutions with no product at all. (Yes, it happens). 
The branded merch industry is no longer the industry of yesterday. And it is no longer a small handful of companies who tilt toward sustainable solutions as some arm-twisting capitulation to demand, it’s a full-on race to save the planet. Sustainable initiatives are no longer driven from outside-in, the most radical solutions for sustainability now come from inside the promotional products industry. To think: If Ford and Chevy decided to completely reform their companies and work toward solely sustainable solutions, they would achieve an impact on the planet no Teslas could ever reach. 
That’s the kind of revolution happening within the merch space.
Why is this even happening?
Because promotional products companies are founded by the same people who care –as deeply– about the planet as anybody else. People who understand that filling the earth with cheap brandfill not only destroys our beautiful planet, but pollutes the brands who participate in it, a great disservice (and poor reflection) of the real work we do every day.
Make Better, Buy Better
So let’s agree with Liz a little and call conference swag that ends up in a hotel room trash can exactly what it is: buying and selling with no conscience and little-to-no strategic intent. But let’s also acknowledge that this problem is not just a supply problem coming from the promotional products industry, it’s both a supply and demand problem. 
Liz’s article noted that “based on Givsly’s data, 40% to 60% of people would, indeed prefer a material object to something more ephemeral, like a donation.” Which is why branded merch companies exist: the very generations (Gen Z and Millenials) that usher in more conscientious and sustainable buying also love their brands and they love strategically designed and thoughtfully produced merch. 
In fact, the obsession for branded merch has skyrocketed. Sites like Hypebeast constantly highlight the roaring trends of merch through the lens of fashion and design as it relates to brands people love. (For a primer on the sensation happening in the world of merch and brands, check out our interview with journalist Adam Bluestein, “How Supreme-Style Merch Drops Took Over Corporate America” ). 
The shocking truth: Swag companies who sell with no intention do so because they serve an audience of buyers who buy with no intention. But don’t ask us for our opinion, ask Seth Godin.
Recently, we interviewed Seth about his stellar new book The Carbon Almanac. Partway through the interview, we asked Seth about a small post he wrote that illustrated how very simple purchasing decisions destroy our planet, it’s worth every second of your two minutes:
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“Cheap conference swag” isn’t the enemy here; thoughtless, unintentional buying and selling is. A cheap water bottle that is loved and kept and used hundreds of times over its lifetime keeps thousands of bottles out of landfills. And yes, eliminate plastic altogether, but sometimes a cheap plastic bottle that gets loved by use is only a small step, but an important step in the right direction. And because of the tremendous strides taken by the companies mentioned here (and many more), from the supply side, we are eliminating thoughtless merch (like stress balls) from the solution equation. In fact, our friends over at BrandFuel forbid the selling of any stress balls through their merch company. None.
Cheap conference swag that nobody uses and everyone tosses in the trash is not what this new industry is about, in fact, if a branded merch solution  —cheap OR expensive— that we sell ends up in the trash, we simply didn’t do our damn job, the job we were paid to do (and do every day): create merch that people love and keep. 
And let’s admit it: this conflict for us as an industry is an internal conflict we live with, like the conflict you (as a consumer) live with when you choose that cheap shirt through your favorite fast-fashion retailer because of the price or the fit. Or when you choose to drive that fuel-powered car because you love the look. It’s a conflict that rages in all of us. We are, each of us, progressing on our path toward eradicating waste in our lives and replacing our conscienceless consumption with positive alternatives that do no harm. 
What we (the promotional products industry) wishes everyone –buyers, journalists, and consumers all would see– the sustainability conversation is no longer us vs them, we agree that thoughtless swag destroys the planet. We are so passionate about it that we are leading the transformation ourselves. 
It’s why (at commonsku) we highlight these companies and the projects we love, and why we do things like invite Liz to our conferences as a speaker, to share her passion and belief about sustainability so we can bring all opinions to the public arena, to help change our hearts and minds so that we can grow better, together. 
The pandemic, for all its heartache, helped purge a huge sector of flagrant, useless selling and buying of swag, creating a divide between the industry that was then and the industry that is now. That’s where Liz is right. She’s right to point out that as events and conferences pick up again, we need to be conscientious about selling and buying branded merchandise. 
But where Liz is wrong is that this industry has a past but also has a future. Shaming an entire industry for the blight they create on our planet is sometimes necessary but also easy. Pick on any major industry, airline or automotive, (for example), and if you aim criticism at such a large target as an entire industry, your criticism will hit its mark. 
But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that within that seemingly careless and thoughtless industry emerges a truer picture and an entirely different story. A new industry is emerging full of people –makers and agencies– who care, deeply enough to know that this turn toward sustainability will have an impact on senseless spending, but also an industry that is wiling to take the risks, maybe even the loss, on a matter of principle for the sake of our planet.
It’s a tale of two industries. 
And this new one is one we’re damn proud to be a part of.

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