Don’t get me wrong. I love a good tote bag, particularly if it’s from a brand I love. I have an NPR tote I got from a pledge drive. I confess that I canceled and re-subscribed to the New Yorker just so that I could get a new version of the tote that comes with membership.
But I’m also drowning in dozens of other totes that brands fling at me at conferences, product launches, and events. Most of them aren’t particularly sturdy or well designed, so they’re not that useful for bringing to the grocery store. And Goodwill doesn’t typically take random, flimsy tote bags. So every few months, I gather them and throw them out.
It’s painful. As you may have heard, the planet is hurtling toward a full-on environmental crisis. A month ago, the United Nations released a report written by 91 scientists in 40 countries saying that there is a strong risk that we will begin experiencing terrible consequences from climate change as soon as 2040. (Think: Food shortages, wildfires, the end of coral reefs.)
When you think about all of the energy and resources that go into making just one of the tote bags that I have just thrown into the trash–only to end up in a landfill–the impact in staggering. Such bags are often made out of cotton with its own environmental footprint, or plastic made from oil. In most cases, they are sewn together in low-wage factories in China, then shipped around the world. And for what purpose? So that a company can marginally improve its brand recognition by stuffing them with pamphlets and handing them out at an event.
It’s not just tote bags, which only make up 8.4% of total promotional product sales. It’s also T-shirts, which represent more than a quarter of sales; writing instruments, which make up 6.1%; and various tech accessories, like USB drives, which make up 7.5%.
The promotional products industry in the United States is worth $24 billion and has grown by 2.5% over the last five years. There are 26,413 businesses in the space, which employs 392,820 people, according to the most recent figures. While cheap swag is popular across industries, education, healthcare, insurance, nonprofits, marketing companies, and technology are the biggest consumers of these items.
There are large companies in this space, including 4imprint, which made $608 million in 2017, Staples Promotional Products, which made $592.9 million, and HALO Branded Solutions, which made $416.4 million. If you’re browsing the internet, you may have stumbled on online distributors like Marco Promos, AnyPromo.com, DiscountMugs, and VistaPrint. All of these companies specialize in creating mugs, magnets, calendars, and T-shirts customized with a client’s logo or advertising message. There are blogs, podcasts, and annual reports devoted to the promotional products industry, and websites that help distributors grow their businesses, encouraging them to sell their products online and ship as quickly as possible.
One thing stands out when you begin to scan through their websites: They’re all competing with one another to sell products at rock bottom prices. The companies buying these things are looking to get them out to as many people as possible, while maximizing their marketing budget.
Take those tote bags that I just chucked out. A plastic tote emblazoned with a logo goes for as little at $0.61, while a cotton one goes for a little over $1. Slightly more premium versions cost more, but are still cheap: You can get insulation for around $2, totes that mimic LL.Bean’s iconic canvas bags for just over $3, and bags that look a little like luxury Longchamp Le Pliage bags for just over $7.
Ensuring an ethical supply chain and materials with the smallest carbon footprint, of course, tends to increase costs. We see a parallel here with the fast fashion industry, which also focuses on making things as inexpensively as possible, so you can buy a T-shirt for a few bucks at H&M or Forever21. But over the last few years, reporting on these practices has drawn attention to their enormously damaging environmental footprint, which includes producing water pollution, toxic chemicals, and terrible waste. The human impact is just as terrifying: Workers at low-cost factories that make fast fashion products often labor under inhumane conditions, and many have died because of a lack of workplace safety standards.
When it comes to promotional goods, there have been reports of workers in Chinese factories that make these products who have experienced poor working conditions and a lack of collective bargaining, which results in very low wages.
The promo industry is about to hit choppy waters as far as manufacturing is concerned. According to the Advertising Speciality Institute (ASI), the promotional industry’s primary supply chain is rooted in Chinese factories. In fact, many promo companies are now being affected by President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese products. And this is going to increase the prices by as much as 25%, which could be a major blow to an industry that thrives on creating cheap goods. “This is one of the biggest challenges our industry has faced from an outside pressure,” Jonathan Isaacson, president of promo company The Gem Group, told Advertising Speciality Institute.
Some companies are thinking about shifting production to other cheap labor markets. Memo Kahan, president of a distributor called PromoShop, says he’s considering moving manufacturing to Malaysia, Africa, and Mexico. These are places that also happen to have weak regulations as far as worker protections and environmental impact.
There are alternatives. Since prices are already going up thanks to Trump’s policies, these companies could consider making their products domestically. Since America has higher standards as far as minimum wage and pollution, this could mitigate some of the industry’s environmental impact. Rather than competing with one another for rock bottom prices, they could pitch themselves as ethical brands–the same way some fashion companies have.
But there’s a more radical solution: We could get rid of cheap swag altogether. What if you left your next conference or trade show without heaps of notepads, pens, and USB drives stuffed in a cheap tote bag, all of which will eventually end up in the trash?
For this transformation to happen, it can’t come from the distributers alone. Brands and consumers need to speak up, and change their behavior. That might mean turning down some of the free stuff that companies shove your way at your annual industry event. If you’re in the marketing department at your company, with some say over what swag you buy, you might sway your team to resist the urge to invest in cheap, disposable garbage.
Instead, consider offering experiences. Several well-reported studies show that millennials are prioritizing experiences over stuff. For instance, I’d appreciate a back massage at a conference, or perhaps a yoga class, or a free headshot. I’d even enjoy a good meal instead of a swag bag. Give me a cold brew, awesome donuts, or a burger. If you wrap the event in your branding, there’s a good chance your target customer will remember that experience long after the tote bag is stuffed in a landfill somewhere.