Not long after PPAI’s first-ever director of sustainability and responsibility, Elizabeth Wimbush, began working in the promotional products industry about eight years ago, she started to see the promo world a bit like the world depicted in The Wizard of Oz, revealing its size to her a little bit more every month and introducing her to all sorts of characters.

Having entered a field she had barely considered previously, the native Canadian remembers thinking, “You peel back the curtain and it’s so big, and everybody who’s in it comes from really interesting and diverse backgrounds.”

Originally recruited to the industry by Catherine Graham – now the CEO of commonsku – to be the production manager of Toronto-based distributor Rightsleeve Marketing, Wimbush did not remain a tourist to promo, like Dorothy in Oz. Having examined it as someone coming from the outside with a personal focus on sustainability, after a couple years at Rightsleeve she began to learn the industry’s particularities and look outward, learning, as she put it, “There’s work to be done here.”

The “here” referred to is the industry at large, and the “work” is strides in sustainability and responsibility. “How can I apply skillsets and passions and help move the industry forward?” Wimbush consistently asked herself.

If that line of questioning made her a strong employee at Rightsleeve and later Genumark, which purchased Rightsleeve during her tenure and would promote her to VP of supply chain and sustainability, it made her a great candidate for PPAI and its mission to be the voice and force to advance the promotional marketplace for the benefit of our community.

Fortunately, the Association had created a position that fit Wimbush’s skillsets and passions perfectly, and the potential to make a significant impact is what Wimbush says drew her to the director of sustainability and responsibility position with PPAI.

The world changes quickly. Old problems escalate and new problems are discovered, all at paces that can be daunting. Like any other industry, the promo world finds itself at the center of so many of these issues.

This summer, PPAI Media introduced the PPAI 100 list, an ambitious project that ranks distributors and suppliers every year based on more than just revenue. Included in that ranking criteria is responsibility in regard to sustainability progress and practices, DEI initiatives and product safety. This is an example of PPAI’s emphasized view that being a responsible company factors into what makes a great promotional products company.

The PPAI Board of Directors made elevating sustainability and responsibility a pillar of the strategic plan it developed for the industry in 2021. In her new role, Wimbush will head an overarching responsibility committee of industry volunteers, which will encompass groups focused on sustainability, product responsibility and diversity, equity and inclusion.

“There is a need to bring everybody together and all this positive intent and galvanize it into action,” Wimbush says. “I want to be part of that.”

What members will learn from Wimbush is that, while action is urgent when it comes to sustainability measures, solutions are approachable.

PPAI’s newest hire comes to this role having not only worked at a large distributorship but also, previous to the promo industry, as a business proprietor herself. For seven years, Wimbush owned and ran Café Novo in Toronto, which focused on fair-trade, organic and sustainable offerings and business practices. Such a venture might not have the potential to end the world’s ecological problems, but it can build up a mindset and put into practice the concept of never missing an opportunity to do the responsible thing.

This opportunity, in essence, is a blank canvas and a mandate to do what needs to be done for this industry – often criticized as one marked by waste – to clean up its act once and for all and push past negative connotations. Education will be key, because the simplest reason she can provide for adopting a particular sustainability initiative or plan is that another company, whether in this industry or outside of it, has done so and found great success.

“I really think you can empower people with education on what they can do personally or what their business can do and help them understand that there are clear paths forward, and there are frameworks in place that can help everybody contribute,” Wimbush says.

Passion is contagious, and it doesn’t take long to see its utility among a community.

Graham saw it in Wimbush early. Having hired her for a position unrelated to sustainability back at Rightsleeve, Graham and other managers encouraged Wimbush to apply that passion for environmental issues to the company wherever she saw the opportunity. To Catherine and Mark Graham of Rightsleeve, none of this would be a distraction for Wimbush; it would be a contribution to the company.

It turned out to be a calling. Pretty much immediately upon joining Genumark after the acquisition, Wimbush’s new, larger employer saw the value in that part of her skillset. Now, she is an industry leader on the subject.

“Liz brings a deep understanding of the industry to her role and a strong perspective on where the industry needs to evolve,” Graham says. “She has a depth of experience driving relationships with sustainable suppliers. She was deeply involved in the B Corp certification process at Genumark and understands what is needed to make an organization successful in adopting sustainability goals and corporate responsibility initiatives.”

The practical knowledge and skillsets require experience, but the experience flies by if you have the passion. Most of Winbush’s free time is typically spent outside, with her two dogs or riding her motorcycle – on the road or in the woods – or hiking or swimming. Alone or with friends, “I’m never bored when I’m out in nature,” she says.

Those are moments worth protecting, and that drives Wimbush.

“The incredible richness and diversity of life is the most awe-inspiring thing,” Winbush says. “Making sure that future generations can enjoy the same level of natural world that we’ve been able to enjoy is really important.”

Now with PPAI, she plans to listen, learn and collaborate. She might have worked with supplier partners before, but her list of partners and collaborators now is vast. She will be both an advocate and a resource for thousands. Alan Peterson, PPAI’s senior vice president, for one, is not worried about the transition.

“We cast a fairly wide net in search of the right person for this position,” Peterson says. “Elizabeth clearly stood out as the candidate best suited to lead.”

Wimbush says much of her life and career seem to have led her to the new role: “It really ties into my why.”


Auping is a news editor at PPAI.