The Sustainability of Choice

by: Jack Abbruzzese

For years, the promotional item industry has received heavy criticism for its role in global climate change and pollution.

But, what led to the poor environmental practice and reputation of the promotional product industry? 

The promotional item industry dates back to 1789, when commemorative buttons were distributed in celebration of George Washington’s presidential election. Not long after that in the mid-1800s, the first promotional tote bags were printed as book bags for school children–still a staple in today’s industry.

Centuries later, “swag” has become synonymous with trinkets and tchotchkes. With tchotchkes unfortunately, but appropriately, defined as, “small objects that are decorative rather than strictly functional.”

And that’s become very true of the promotional industry. The products many distributors push today barely serve their purpose functionally (stress balls so cheap they induce stress, the worst plastic wine openers known to man, a blue-ink pen that breaks after 4 signatures, I can go on for days), but effectively serve as thousands of mini billboards for companies looking to cheaply build brand awareness. Where early products were designed and manufactured with purpose and function in mind, even the very first tote bags, these products were designed to grab your attention. 

What changed? What happened? 

Throughout the 1900s, economic importance gradually shifted from manufacturing and production to service and information as the United States solidified itself as one of the most financially prosperous countries in the world.

Post WW2, America saw unrelenting economic growth. Previous barriers to starting a small business, like machinery, equipment, facilities, and property became less relevant and led to an unprecedented increase in independent enterprises and their need to differentiate their brand via marketing. 

Since the 1980s, the number of traditional corporations has shrunk while small businesses, partnerships, and sole proprietorships have tripled to over 30 million in total.

At the same time, improvements in chemical technology led to a boom in new forms of inexpensive plastics, with mass production taking off in the 40s and 50s. 

I hope you can see where I’m going with this.

Business was booming. 

Advertising and marketing budgets skyrocketed.

Plastic was new, cool, cheap… and easy to print on. 

The promotional product industry was hooked on inexpensive, flashy fad products. And the lower price point let brands purchase larger quantities of custom products, seemingly increasing their reach.

And while this was undeniably effective enough to grow the industry steadily for years (to nearly $26B in 2019), recent criticisms have proved troubling for the future of the industry. And for an industry already struggling to understand millennial and gen z consumers, being described as an “environmental nightmare” is really, really not good. 

Articles, executive orders, and blogs attacking the promo industry left the industry scrambling to save its image. Soon enough, suppliers were offering eco-friendly (recycled, reusable, recyclable, etc.) products and apparel to reduce its impact. This was a good thing. The industry recognized it had a problem, and has been actively pushing products made from more sustainable materials in order to meet demand for more environmentally friendly marketing solutions. 

It also recognized that higher quality products, though more expensive, have potential to make a much better impression on customers and are more likely to be kept for a long time (rather than end up in the trash bin by the exit door of the convention center). Companies like Fairware, that specialize in sustainable, effective promotional marketing solutions, boomed as brands looked to reduce their environmental impact. 

Happy ending right? Not quite.

While manufactured with higher quality and sustainable materials, many of these products aren’t much “greener” than their predecessors. Greenwashing has run rampant through the promotional product industry from suppliers’ unproven claims of “compostable” bioplastic products to “eco-inspired” products with nothing actually eco-friendly about them.

The shift toward eco-friendly products is undoubtedly good, but it misses the mark.
The issue with promotional products and giveaways is choice.

With tens of thousands of options to choose from, distributors and brands are basically guessing which products will be most effective with the target market. And while the very best brands are very good at effective promotional marketing, many many more are not very good. And this leads to:

  • Items not being used
  • Items immediately thrown away
  • Too many items ordered (and being thrown away)
  • Items that don’t reach the target market

So, what’s the solution?


Let the customer decide what product they want. It’s that simple.

Imprint Genius’s solution is a print-on-demand, online custom merchandise platform that lets clients, employees, customers, and fans pick their promo with a few clicks.

Customers get exactly what they want and how many they want–which means less wasted product and less guessing from the marketing department.

No more leftovers from the trade show.

No more worrying about ordering the right product. 

No more lugging boxes of products to and from the event.

No more wasting marketing dollars on products that will end up in the trash.

Allowing people to choose their own giveaways cuts waste, stress, and spending for your brand.

But, what about the rest of the environmental impact? Isn’t the apparel industry ⅓ of the promotional product industry? And isn’t the apparel industry one of the world’s biggest polluters?

We kinda figured that out too. 

Introducing Promo Done Greener, the custom apparel industry’s very first carbon calculator.

Using data from a life-cycle carbon footprint study of the industry’s most common textiles, we calculate greenhouse gas emissions based on the material makeup and quantity of products.

Then, we offset the impact of the order through Gold Standard Certified environmental projects. 

Learn more at

Reduce waste with our merch stores. Offset the rest with Promo Done Greener.

Promo done smarter. 

Promo done greener.

Imprint Genius.