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A Guide To Offering Sustainable Swag At Corporate Events


Lou Elliott-Cysewski, Co-founder and CEO of Coolperx, the first climate-neutral brand merchandise company in the world.

As the effects of global climate change continue to demand viable environmental solutions, more and more businesses and industry sectors are recognizing the role they need to play in order to tackle this global challenge. Yet, there is one particular area that is often overlooked but needs to be reevaluated: corporate events.

The overall events industry is due for a reckoning, and not a minute too soon. National and global events can cause significant harm in the form of emissions resulting from travel, lodging, food waste and energy. One conference, for example, was found to leave 455 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s not all: Promotional items are only kept, on average, for a year, according to the 2019 Global Ad Impressions Study by the Advertising Specialty Institute. Just 21% of branded and promotional items are kept for any length of time. More than half is given away, and 23% is thrown away. This means much of the swag that’s often shared at events ends up in landfills and further contributes to this already-grim situation.

That being said, we can’t discount the importance of corporate events. In addition to the usual business gains that occur when big events are well-designed and managed, these opportunities for clients, vendors and employees to interact together in the same space have always been crucial for a company’s community connections. With in-person business events starting to make a comeback, many stakeholders are looking forward to attending more in-person, all-hands meetings and conferences in the next few years. My company is no exception: We are registered to attend and present at several national events throughout this year.

As the co-founder of a climate-neutral and plastic-neutral brand merchandise company, my approach to sustainably was to first define “sustainability.” In operating my business, sustainability has three crucial metrics:

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1. Low/no harm: What impact will products have on everything from design to shipping? How well will they keep?

2. High ethics: Are the products sourced ethically, without harmful or exploitative business practices at any level of production?

3. Covetability or relevance: Are the products high-quality and desirable? Are they meant to be cherished for a long time, rather than used once and thrown away?

While it might seem daunting, there are simple ways to apply these metrics to your event’s swag products. Start with a clear definition of the audience: Who will be there? What are their interests and values? Collecting as much data as possible means you can reduce waste through targeted activations, giveaways, booth design and traffic flow. Here are some more tips:

Research the origin and impact of items like booths, displays and giveaways.

Today, more than 60% of consumers in the U.S. want businesses to improve societal and environmental issues, according to a 2017 survey of 1,000 Americans by Cone Communications. Companies spend millions of dollars on events that are designed to promote goodwill and increase loyalty, yet I’ve observed they often procure damaging items that are purchased as an afterthought.

Ensure you do your research so you don’t show up with products that are detrimental to the environment or were produced through other harmful practices. Otherwise, that harm could be associated with your brand, which can sabotage your branding efforts.

Furthermore, focus on quality over quantity. Branded merchandise can end up in landfills. You can set yourself apart and make a powerful impact by prioritizing intentionality and sustainability in your branded merchandise.

Forsake flimsy bags.

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Offering bags as swag at trade shows enables people to pick up items they don’t need or won’t use because they don’t want to say no to the person offering them a gift. Also, in my experience, many event bags commonly used for this purpose are only designed to be used a handful of times—or likely won’t be reused at all. Instead, focus on providing promotional products that are both sustainable and coveted by your target audience.

Reclaim what you can’t get rid of.

Instead of just throwing them away, you can repurpose the promotional products that are left over after an event. Use these gifts as an opportunity to network or give back to existing customers. You might even distribute them to your employees to show your gratitude for their work. Start thinking of unused swag for another sustainable marketing opportunity where you can further express your corporate values.

Prioritizing sustainability in your corporate event is a powerful way to change the game, both for the environment and for your company. It’s a step you can take to show the world your actions are aligned with your values. That’s how you can unleash the full potential of your brand.


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