Corporate merch: the argument for less stuff

From free tote bags to coffee cups, promotional materials are a great way to increase brand recognition. But can we really justify the environmental impact?

An online order that arrived on our doorstep the other week included a pair of bright-pink socks with an emblem on them. Not that weird, you're probably thinking. But the order was for a few bags of tortilla chips, raising the question: why the hell is a food company giving away socks with its logo on to customers? 

The answer, of course, is marketing. From socks and totes to coffee cups, for years businesses have been obsessed with creating branded products as a way to shove their names down customers' throats. But does the world really need more stuff?

Admittedly, we could all do more (or, indeed, less) to cut down on waste. After all, did we need to order snacks online (with all the associated environmental costs that come with online shopping), or could we have simply walked to the shop? 

Nevertheless, one thing seemingly out of consumers' control these days is corporate merch. Once you hit a certain price point, brands throw free things at you. But, as we approach a potential future where companies are legally required to measure the resource drain from even the smallest of operations, are the days of corporate merch numbered? Can companies justify the environmental cost of the manufacture and distribution?

Don't get us wrong, merch has its benefits and has been working well for companies for years, spreading awareness, brand recognition and driving customer loyalty. A 2019 survey by print-on-demand platform Prodigi found that nine out of 10 people who owned corporate merch said they consciously thought about the brand when they wore or used the item.

Look at tote bags. Originally touted as the eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags, they've effectively become a way to turn customers into walking advertisements. But, while they're not clogging our oceans or being ingested by marine life, anyone that thinks totes are a good substitute for plastic needs a reality check.

They're reusable, of course. However, according to a 2018 study by the Danish government, you'd need to reuse an organic cotton tote 20,000 times to offset the environmental impact of its production compared to that of a plastic bag (7,100 times for a non-organic one, given that organic production requires around 30% more resources). And, yet, companies still churn them out. 

The problem isn't that merch exists; it's that customers often don't have a choice in whether they want it or not. Charging a nominal amount at the checkout, like $1 to $5, for a (previously free) reusable coffee cup branded with your logo probably wouldn't be a big earner for brands, but if it gets people to actively engage in the decision to own one, then that's something. 

Ultimately, reducing the amount or even erasing merch from the face of the earth isn't going to solve the climate crisis, but brands need to actively question whether this cheap marketing ploy is worth the huge environmental cost. After all, does the world really need more stuff?

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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