Lanyard to Landfill: Swag Should Evolve or Die, CSU Professor Says

Unlike many conference name tags and lanyards, CSU faculty member Sonali Diddi's team used laser cut leftover wood sheets from CSU Nancy Richardson Design Center’s wood shop and clipped them to CSU Surplus lanyards. (Photo courtesy Colorado State University)
Mark Gokavi | The SOURCE

Colorado State University faculty member Sonali Diddi has been tempted by conference swag – a new bag, a cool lanyard, a personalized name tag, yet another water bottle. Diddi, who teaches about fashion and textile industry waste, also liked getting free stuff.

“We used to go to a trade fair every year in Las Vegas,” said Diddi, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Design and Merchandising. “I would collect cloth bags because they were of good quality, and I would get excited. And then it dawned on me, ‘How many bags am I going to have?’ and I thought, ‘OK, I don’t need it.’ It was a conscious way of stopping. It’s OK not to have another junky pen.”

Estimates of the United States swag or promotional products industry vary from $17 billion to more than $25 billion per year, with a global estimate of $64 billion. And while recent efforts and trends by swag suppliers and purchasers involve sustainable options, ING estimates 40% of corporate gifts end up in landfills. Plus, there are human considerations.

“Conference swag has a huge environmental impact as most of them are made from cheap plastic and materials, are of poor quality, and have a short product life,” Diddi said. “Given that typically the cost of swag items is very low, there is a high likelihood that some of the products are made in facilities that have poor working conditions – directly affecting workers’ health.”

Diddi, who teaches in the College of Health and Human Sciences and is an affiliate faculty member of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, hosted the 2023 Fashion and Circular Economy Symposium at CSU’s Nancy Richardson Design Center.

Challenges of being circular

Diddi strived to be a good host (event photos). That meant answering her own swag and sustainability questions.

Diddi opted against printed schedules and asked guests to bring their own water bottles (though 100% recycled bottles were provided due to an existing agreement in one instance). She spent extra for compostable plates and silverware. However, bins to collect compostable utensils didn’t arrive.

Diddi spent 200% more money for laser cut nametags made from leftover wood sheets from CSU Nancy Richardson Design Center’s wood shop and clipped to CSU Surplus lanyards. She said they looked fantastic, but the badges broke because the clip was too strong for the joint. Sonali said it was a lesson learned.

“It was a good way for us to experience the challenges of being circular and making those conscious decisions,” she said. “But the systems and infrastructure are not built to be able to provide these services easily.”

Diddi explained that swearing off all swag isn’t realistic, at least not yet. Her advice to event and conference attendees is to be thoughtful when accepting swag.

“If you pause and think, ‘I really love this bag, or it’s great quality, or I really want to memorialize this event,’ then great, go for it,” she said. “But if you think it’s just one more shirt you might wear at home gardening, ‘Can I live without it?’ Absolutely. Then just pass on it.”

She said if conferencegoers don’t take swag, especially low-quality items, maybe organizers will reevaluate the money spent. “It’s going to be a slow process,” Diddi said. “They may give a better-quality pen which people are going to keep for a long time.”

‘Responsibility of all’

Diddi, who spoke in 2023 with Popular ScienceBritish Vogue and The Washington Post about topics like reevaluating your wardrobe, not overwashing clothes, and “greenwashing,” said more sustainable swag options exist. Those include fewer and better swag items, giving away experiences, or making donations in participants’ names.

Companies such as Ethos, Clove & Twine, Forest Nation, Fairware, Ethical Swag, and others claim to do better for the environment.

“I think it is the responsibility of all – companies ordering the swag, facilities manufacturing swag, and people taking the swag – to rethink its purpose,” Diddi said. “Do we need it or want it? It is high time that all partners promoting and using swag take a pause and rethink the best way of using nature’s resources and accepting accountability.

“Swag provides a temporary excitement of getting physical things for free, but mostly it does not last or is discarded shortly after its acquisition.”

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