Bag the Schwag

If the tech industry and its associated conferences have any serious notions about reducing our impact on the environment, one small step would be to minimize the amount of schwag distributed at tradeshows, most of which ends up in a landfill. Above, Violet Blue’s photograph from SXSW shows the pile of 5,000+ bags filled and waiting for attendees to arrive.

We distributed Make and Craft buttons in the bags, and they were popular. However, I find myself reconsidering even those marketing efforts because I know myself that while I got a schwag bag, all but the bag itself ended up in the trash can at my hotel before I left Austin.

My friend Pam Laird, and wife of OATV’s Mark Jacobsen wrote me as I was composing this entry:

Mark gave my badge to a friend so she could see some music after we left, and I lunged at him, when I thought he was going to give away my Make button also. I tend to think I’m irrational about what my friends are doing, but here I see I was not alone. From blogger Manifest Density:

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the best or at least most interesting swag came in the tote bag that every attendee received. For one thing, there was the pin from MAKE Magazine that I cherish but have already almost managed to destroy.

Proof that schwag works. Sadly for the environment.

  • John Dowdell

    I’ve read of something, can’t find it in the search engines right now, but it’s “schwag credits” where you can pay someone in a developing country to not hold a conference, so the schwag balances out.

    (Maybe public trashcans should be coin-operated?)

  • I would love to see some kind of no-paper-schwag pledge conferences could sign onto, perhaps with some kind of badge used to promote it. Buttons may have their fans, but fliers and pamphlets are not memorable or useful.

  • pt

    i usually don’t take a bag, i stopped doing so for about 3 years now, i don’t seem to miss anything i need now so.

    that said there are lots of post-conference projects like making laptop sleeves, clothing and other types of bags…

    here’s a fun one–

  • tom

    Well, it works, but how much metal really went into those pins? How many un-recycled aluminum soda cans would it take to equal the environmental debt that MAKE incurred by pursuing this strategy? Not that many, I suspect.

    The photos are striking, and it’s certainly a lot of junk all in one place, but when you consider how much unsolicited mail is delivered every day, conference schwag is still a relative drop in the bucket. That’s not to excuse it, but it’d be easy to find a fix, anyway: the stuff in the bag is advertising, pure & simple. If conference organizers want to reduce its impact, they could start charging a little more for product placement and use the revenue to purchase offsets.

    Different distribution systems would help, too — most of the mass in that bag was paper, and most of it was stuff that conference-goers didn’t want (I didn’t, anyway — I could pick up a copy of the Austin Chronicle on any street corner. I didn’t need two complimentary issues.). Simply offering tables full of magazines that attendees could help themselves to would make a lot more sense (and require a lot less lugging-around).

    Given that SXSW went carbon-neutral this year, I’m optimistic that they may eventually implement some changes along these lines. They seem to be making an effort.

  • Ultimately, schwag preferences are pretty individual. I’d probably want the stickers and pins and the bag itself, but probably none of the paper handouts. If there was a way for the guests to grab what they wanted in reasonable amounts, that would have been ideal.

  • Thank you for saying that. The “schwag” is definitely a low point of tech conferences, and it’s really depressing to see folks grabbing them, and throwing them in the trash five minutes later. I would applaud any tech conference that banned this crap.

  • So, why can’t we make most of that schwag digital? It would save a TON on physical materials… print costs…

  • Ben
  • I think just eliminating the paper crap would be nice. How about a nifty USB drive with all those promos in there? Once you’ve checked it out, give the drive to a school teacher– they could really use them.

    Or just one handout with nothing but URL’s on it? Or a web address on the bag itself, pointing to a page where everyone gets their 15 sec.’s of fame?

    Personally I’d love to see a reusable badge for conferences. Using Bluetooth maybe, it could broadcast this stuff for your perusal later. Next conference, it reloads with freshness.

  • I’ve always felt this stuff is a waste of materials, time, and money. It’s just an ego trip for the marketing departments. Cast my vote for getting rid of the waste.

  • The only thing I saved from the bag was the sharpie. Useful schwag, if you ask me. Everything else is in the Austin landfill.

  • Browsing through Make and Craft zines, can’t help but think there’s gotta be something fun I can do with this crap, instead of dumping it in the trash… ;}

  • David

    Went to a meeting in Seattle in January. Umbrellas instead of bags. Very useful.

  • Here’s a conference (non-tech oriented) that has been working hard over the past 10 years to improve its environmental footprint

    Some of their listed initiatives could be implemented at tech conferences.

  • asher

    Isn’t it SWAG? I’ve never heard the term schwag, unless it’s a phonetic representation of someone’s lisp.

  • asher:

    That’s a good question! A quick search produced this link that probably tells more than we need to know.

  • Sorry, I forgot to post the link. Here it is:

  • Jeff C.

    I was about to make a comment about this too. “Swag” is the proper term, whilst “schwag” has connotations with drug use.

  • Dylan Rush

    Wow, I am amazed that someone would be anal retentive and would have spent enough percentage of their lives at computer industry conventions to actually give a damn about swag in landfills.

    If you actually care about the environment and you’re not just trying to control everyone around you, there are much, much bigger things to worry about in the world.

    Get over it.

  • Bob Dylan

    I used to work as a TSA baggage screener in one of the largest cities. Everyone flies to those conferences. We would see the same conference package bags repeatedly for a few days, because piles of thick photographic paper used in brochures always trigger the x-ray and had to be examined by hand.

  • dw

    By Friday afternoon of SXSWi, the table by the Lego pit was covered at least eight inches deep in tote bag detritus. As I started to chuck stuff out of my bag, someone walks up, looks at the growing pile, and asks, “And this will all be recycled, right?”

    I didn’t know. Being Austin, I hope so.

  • Joel H

    Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
    1) Paper companies grow trees for harvesting on their own land… TO claim that printing a document is contributing to the depletion of our forests is the same as claiming that eating french fries reduces the global potato supply.
    2) Landfills are not filling up, it is complete fear mongering.
    3) The whole purpose of the Schwag is to get you to play with it long enough that you remember the company name, then you can throw it away.
    4) If the schwag didn’t work, then companies wouldn’t buy it, distribute it.

  • Patrick

    ‘Schwag’ is low-grade marijuana.

    ‘Swag’ is free stuff.

    The more you know.

  • I’ve always thought that with all the t-shirts, jackets, bags, and other useful stuff that companies give away, someone like the Salvation Army could gather the throwaways at conferences and do some good with it.

    This year at the RSA Conference 2007, one vendor (I think it was Secure Computing) had a barrel for swag cast-offs. The challenge to attendees was to fill the barrel, in which event the company would donate the items, plus $10K to a local charity.

  • That really is a lot-o-schwag. I like the idea of having some sort of donation thing set up…like the cities that make deals with restaurants/stores that create excess food. They take it away to someone that would actually get some use of it instead of rats in basement.

  • Reducing the impact of promotional items is the concept behind our new company, Basil Branding.

    Promotional items and logoed apparel do serve a purpose and are great marketing tools, but they should not cause harm to the environment.

  • The amount of Swag I get from my own company is crazy, Everything from Flip Flops to Rubber ducks. All of them Advertising the company I work for to an employee almost as if I was there best customer. The whole thing is always a bit crazy. It all goes in the bin!

  • @Joel H
    You really should do some research before opening your mouth, as your seriously if you think Weyerhauser isn’t chopping down Canadian Boreal, or others aren’t denuting Southeast Asia, so you can callously chuck this crap in the landfill. Whether or not there’s “plenty of space” it’s still wasteful.

    “If forcing you to buy stuff at gunpoint didn’t work they wouldn’t do it.” No, that’s not saying giving you a brochure is coercion, that’s pointing out that lack of reason in your “logic.” Just because “they do it” and it has an effect, does not make it a rational act.

  • I was at SxSW and got one of those bags. The O’Reilly folks give them out too. The conference program and schedule it invaluable.

    Contrary to many on the list, I love the canvas bags. We use them at home for groceries and other household tasks.

    I read a couple of the magazine and even brought one of the design mags back to a friend in LA that digs it. The little postcard ads are probably the worst though.

    The junk inside is all recyclable, so it goes into the paper bin.

  • Will

    Think how much energy we could conserve if all you techies stopped spamming everyone?

  • Brian

    I went to SXSW this year and can’t even begin to describe how much junk I received. What I couldn’t recycle at the convention center was packed into my suitcase so it could be recycled at home. Next year I’d like to see SXSW be more responsible with distribution of print marketing materials.

  • Scott Ellsworth

    I rather like some of the swag. I tend to collect it when I get the chance.

    I still have the canvas bags from the OReilly biocon and mac conferences I attended. They often get used when I travel, and The Daughter has glommed on to them to carry things.

    Most brochure swag is not worth keeping, IMO, and I tend to avoid it if I can. I do keep schedules, often with little notes scribbled on it.

    The best swag tends to be either toys or things with an occasional but practical use, like notebooks, t-shirts, decent pens, blinky pins, fiber optic toys, anything with legos, coffee mugs/travel mugs, and the desktop clock I picked up at the JPL job fair. The OReilly books given out at WWDC are still on the bookshelf, and are often a high point in the conference swag.

    The worst is marketing brochures that duplicate the web, CDs with old versions of your software, and items that will have no value even before I get it off the show floor. Tell me something I do not know, or give me somethin that I might use or play with, and I will get enough value out of it to be happy.

    And I echo the suggestion to put the recycle bin about fifty feet from the registration desk. Sad that this will be the fate of brochures that cost a bunch to print, but I would refuse most of the printed stuff had I the choice.


  • I completely agree. Lets end all swag. I always hate the tshirts cause they never fit well. And I won’t subscribe to mags like Make because the world doesn’t need more crap. I’d just rather read it online.

  • Nick S

    The ETech swag bags have gone from US-made 100% recycled canvas totes (great for shopping and storing soft materials) to Chinese-made acrylic messenger bags. Oh well.

  • I don’t necessarily agree that schwag should be killed. I think the promotions people should realize that if you give out junk like your typical tshirts or usb keys, then it’ll just end up in the junk.