Here’s the thing about that recent article begging for the demise of “cheap conference swag”: It missed the mark. 

Where it was 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 it was wrong: Conflating useless swag with a branded merchandise industry that has evolved. 

The pandemic changed 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. A 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

The article cites one of those new classes of entrepreneurs, the founder of a company based in Belgium, which sells sustainable swag. But his is not the sole voice in this fight. That business represents a swath of conscientious promotional products companies that now put the planet first.

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. It was our friend Jamie Mair, co-founder of SwervePoint, 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, HPG and many, many more. Though many of these companies existed in the “trinkets and trash” days, they revolutionized their own businesses – 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.

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. This 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 (like our friends at whitestone) 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 the author 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. 

The article noted data suggesting 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. 

And their 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.

The shocking truth: Swag companies who sell with no intention do so because they serve an audience of buyers who buy with no intention.

“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 constant 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 at conferences) from the solution equation. Our friends over at BrandFuel believe so strongly in it, that they forbid the selling of 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 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) wish everyone – buyers, journalists, and consumers – would see is the sustainability conversation is no longer us versus them. We agree that thoughtless swag is bad for the planet. We are so passionate about it that we are leading the transformation ourselves. 

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 the article is right. The author is 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 she is wrong is that this industry has a past, but also 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 it’s 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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