How can I reduce the waste I receive at conferences etc?

My starting off point for this post was the question “How can I avoid getting free stuff at conferences etc?” but the easy answer to that is obviously “just say ‘no, thanks'”.

There is a bigger related discussion though: how can we stop companies from giving away likely-to-instantly-break junk at conferences and exhibitions etc in the name of promotion? And how can we reduce the one-off waste created by conferences in general?

This question is partly inspired by yesterday’s post about recycling promotional rucksacks but also because it’s the start of conference season (in the tech world at least) so there will be a lot of promotional junk flying around soon. To be fair, some of the stuff we’ve collected at events in the past has been well made — I’ve had some promotional pens last for years and my favourite shopping bag is from a tech conference in 2008 (and when it finally falls apart, I’ll use it as a pattern to make a new one) — but a lot of it is poor quality and random stuff that just about no one needs. Still, despite it being crap, there seems to be almost an expectation about the provision of swag at conferences – I know people who feel a bit cheated if they don’t come away with at least one free t-shirt, even though many are poor quality and they admit used only for decorating or laundry day provision.

Has anyone attended any conferences or events where the organisers/companies have cut back on junk, given away quality items or been more creative with their offerings?

Or has anyone had any luck convincing organisers/companies to cut back or make the switch to better stuff? And what can be done to change the expectation attitude of attendees?

And what else can be done to reduce the one-off waste produced by conferences and the like? Any clever ways to avoid providing new nametags (especially ones needing lanyards) at every event or reducing the amount of paperwork (schedules, maps, other blurb) given to attendees?

(Photo by TheSeafarer)

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11 Responses to “How can I reduce the waste I receive at conferences etc?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Why do you need to swear?

    • louisa says:

      I don’t *need* to swear, I can stop at any time ;)

      Also, if it’s the word I think you mean, I don’t really consider that swearing – slightly coarse, yes, but not swearing. I’m sorry if it offended you.

  2. louisa says:

    To answer my own question a bit, here are some clever low-waste ideas I’ve spotted at conferences:

    – one conference got all the exhibitors to send in electronic copies of their marketing rather than paper ones; attendees were given a (custom branded, reusable as normal) USB stick with all the details on them instead of shedloads of paper.

    – at another event, a company had a water filter station (a bottle-free water cooler, fed from the mains but cooled & filtered) and gave away refillable branded drinks containers – encouraging people to return to their stall again and again, and giving them a reusable drink bottle to take home too.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been to one conference where many booths did raffles. This way, they gave away only a few quality things that people really wanted and could use, but they still managed to get publicity; they were the most popular booths even. People would come by everyday to the booth to get a new raffle ticket, and would crowd around come raffle time to see if they’d won, which gave the people at the booths a large attentive crowd to talk to about their products.

  4. Kate E. says:

    Love your blog!
    I think there is still much work to do on changing the crowd expectations at these events since I’ve been to several where I was not giving out freebies (I was a scrapbooking consultant) but would give out small gifts of time or product to interested parties. I would constantly have people running into my booth, scanning around for freebies, and even had some of my display items taken by people who thought they were freebies for the taking. I’m no longer in that business, but I see the same mentality at expos or conferences that I’ve attended as a guest. Unless it is a ‘green’ conference, the mindset seems to be to look for the most freebies that one can grab up and whoever has the most wins.

  5. Sheila says:

    A better question would be -is this conference/meeting really necessary? With all the means of communication available to us today do we all really need to burn fossil fuels to get to a location and pick up piles of useless tat that has been manufactured in China?

  6. We normally divy out items around the office, and anything left over goes into the cupboard. I use those “green” bags and make things out of them.

  7. Alice says:

    Re: nametags – you get a sheet of sticky labels, you ask people to write their name on one with a big marker pen, and then ask them to stick theirs somewhere on their top or whatever.

    Doing anything else demonstrates an organisational culture of generating excess work (i.e. inefficiency), plus an emphasis on branding and uniformity rather than on individual creativity.

    When people write their own name tags they can choose to use the nickname they usually go by, plus they often personalise them with a small picture or even just their handwriting – this can make a great visual aid to help you remember people’s names!

    So quite often they’re MORE useful than the expensive ones that some companies have their admin staff spend hours ordering, laminating, guillotineing etc…

    …as well as the time it takes to check you’ve spelt everyone’s name correctly, the inevitable embarrassment when you find you still got it wrong for a couple of people anyway, my colleague Nehemiah not being able to shorten his name to Miah so people can remember it, and maybe one tenth of them not getting used at all because people you were expecting didn’t turn up. Or a company sent someone else instead so the replacement person has to wear a colleague’s name all day…

  8. Alice says:

    Anonymous – was it the four-letter c-word that offended you? :-)

    I must say I don’t really consider that swearing either, but I’ll make sure to watch my language on here!

  9. Alice says:

    Organisations give people this type of corporate branded rubbish to make you associate their brand with generosity. We could turn this around by changing the impression they think they’re creating with it.

    Write to the organisers thanking them for a nice conference but asking them not to give out so much rubbish next time – explain why!

    “Friend” the organisation or organisers on Facebook, then update your status etc with something saying “Look at this rubbish wasteful thing I got given at this conference” Mention the organisation by name and they’ll soon get uneasy that they’re getting such public negative attention over their gifts.

    Obviously if you have a blog or write a newsletter you could comment on it there too – make sure the company is named and that they read it so they realise they’re getting negative publicity – or write to the letters pages of industry magazines or wherever else you think the organisers might care about the impression they’re creating.

  10. Usually most conference organisers/secretariats would give out Delegate Feedback sheets at the end of the conferences, or you can find an online survey form at their official website. Inform them why you think conference swag is going the way of the dodo — it’s not good for the environment, most people wouldn’t be caught dead wearing/using any of the things unless they are of high quality, high quality products cost a lot of money, high costs deters participation.

    For brand association, it is normally enough for the company to print their logos on adhesive paper name tags / cardboard tags with no plastic sleeves, a binder and a pen. Bottled water, baseball caps, t-shirts and other such items are all basically a waste of money.

    Request that seminar notes be available in soft copy and perhaps the organisers should provide a printing service for the said purpose, to print only what is needed and specifically requested.

    Water can be provided in jugs at each table or from a water dispenser, and bottled water should be avoided at all costs.

    My friends and I have gone up to conference organisers at the end of the conference and returned things we do not need — caps, calendars, post-it pads, key rings, plastic name tags — and informed them both verbally and in writing (in the feedback form) why we are returning their conference swag. Be polite and diplomatic at all times — you don’t want to be seen to be ungrateful or hostile!

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