Pop!Tech: Ending the Conference Bag Arms Race

Rather than saddle participants with yet another logo-ridden conference bag, Timbuk2 and Pop!Tech conspired to create a cool bag that attendees could use — and then pay forward.

Really, who needs another conference bag? Chances are, you already have hordes of them, too good to trash, too besmirched with logos to use, gathering dust in the back of a closet.


So when the San Francisco-based bag maker Timbuk2 approached Pop!Tech organizers about creating bags for this year’s conference, they proposed thinking about the idea in a whole new way.  How about designing a bag that had a positive influence on somebody else? What if you could give the bag back when you left the conference? And what if those bags were then passed along to folks who could really use them — like inner city kids who might actually appreciate a cool free bag?

“The whole thing grew out of a discussion we had started before the economy melted down about what our green strategy should be,” says Perry Klebahn, Timbuk2’s CEO.  “We conceived of the idea of a conference bag that would serve its purpose then move on to another life.”

To Timbuk2, that meant more than just a conventional recycling approach. And it had to be about more than just marketing.  “Every consumer product now claims to be green, he says. “I don’t want to do ‘trend,’ whether it’s  green, durability, or timelessness — that’s Vanity Fair, not us,” he says.  Timbuk2 wanted to be more pro-planet, not just conventionally sustainable, although most of their materials are eco-friendly.  And that meant making products that helped people make personal connections in some meaningful way.

Andrew Zolli, Pop!Tech’s curator, loved the idea, not least because it resonated with this year’s motif. “Especially with a theme of Scarcity and Abundance, we felt it was important to declare a unilateral de-escalation in the conference bag arms race,” he says.

“Every day, organizers saddle conference participants with an unending stream of heavily branded, instantly-out-of-date conference bags stuffed with self-serving marketing detritus, all of which is quickly seconded to the back of some closet or the landfill. Enough!”

And Zolli knew just the way to make Timbuk2’s ‘pay it forward’ idea happen, connecting Kevin McSpadden, Timbuk2’s new CMO, with Eric Dawson, a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow, and the founder of Peace Games, a non-profit that works to change schools’ culture by teaching kids conflict resolution and peacemaking skills. Dawson’s group works with youngsters in Boston public schools — a social responsibility two-fer.


“With Timbuk2, we’re redirecting bags them from where they are abundant (among high-end conference goers) to scarce (among deserving students). The cherry on top is that we’re creating a model that other organizations can follow,” Zolli says.

One of the coolest features of the bag, which is made with excess materials in their San Francisco production facility, is a liner that’s embellished with words of wisdom from Pop!Tech attendees to the bag’s future owners, Boston area fifth graders. Among the sage advice: “Embrace your weirdness.” “Tattoo removal hurts even more.” “Popularity is fleeting.” “Avoid credit cards. “ “Be glad you did, not wish you had. “ “Lottery tickets are for suckers.”

Timbuk2 designers were sensitive to the style issues their bags would encounter among such a discriminating audience. “We didn’t do yellow because we didn’t want somebody to get beat up because they carried this thing,” Klebahn says.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.