Keeping Your Swagger but Losing the Swag

This past fall I was looking for a project to work on involving sustainability, so I reached out to Mike Evans. I have always been interested in environmental issues and was looking to branch out and see what I could learn. Mike let me know that the sustainability section of the Williams Strategic Plan includes a recommendation for reducing swag on campus and choosing environmentally friendly swag products, but there was not yet anyone working to make that happen. To launch the project, I am working with a few departments and student organizations to see how they use swag, how they can reduce what they use, and how they can change to more sustainable options. While this is quite a large project for me to take on, it is exciting to think of the potential impact once everyone is involved!

For those of you not in the know, swag stands for “stuff we all get” and is the free promo, like shirts, pens, tote bags, fidget spinners, water bottles, etc., that you get at events. Swag is great in a lot of ways – it builds awareness of your school or group, it creates memories, it brings people together that may not know each other (“hey, I like your Ephelia socks, where did you get them?”), and best of all, it is free. I love free stuff and I bet you do, too. So what is the problem? None of that is the problem, the problem is environmental. It is how and where swag is made, what it is made of, how much is used, how long people keep these items, and where they end up when they are disposed of. Most, if not all swag is mass produced, low quality, uses plastic or other environmentally damaging materials, and is usually not kept for longer than 8 months on average. Due to their materials, many pieces of swag are not recyclable and end up in a landfill where they might not break down or disintegrate into smaller pieces that contaminate the environment. Typically, swag also needs to be packaged and shipped from (usually) different vendors depending on the item, causing waste from shipping materials and greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions from transportation. Swag can also be problematic depending on the manufacturing processes as well as potential for poor worker conditions (which is a topic for another post).

This is why Williams wants to work to reduce the amount and type of swag we give out. Williams recognizes its considerable environmental impacts and thus its responsibility to make change for the better. As I work with various departments and staff members on this project so far, they have all recognized this issue and care about sustainability. Exciting for me to find out, and certainly makes my project easier, right? Well, sort of! Many staff members think this is a great initiative and want to move towards sustainability but are reluctant or don’t know how to step away from their swag offerings because it  is a major part of their events. People love swag! How can I tell them to stop giving people what they want, things they enjoy and make them happy? What kind of monster am I? Just kidding, no one is upset with me. But I do hear some fear! What I hear from staff is that they are hesitant to reduce the swag they give out because they are afraid a few things will happen:

  1. Decline in student involvement in departments and events
  2. Reduced learning about departments and events
  3. Short-lived recall about departments and events
  4. Less effective event promotion
  5. Diminished enjoyment at events

These are not unfounded fears. A survey conducted of 145 students by the ‘68 Center for Career Exploration found that almost 23% of students said that swag was a primary factor for attending an event. No department can afford to lose 23% of their student involvement if swag is decreased. Can we get these 23% of students to either change their minds about swag, or get the various departments to change their events to be more attractive to these 23%? I am hoping we can do both.

Graph showing that interest in the resources provided is the main reason someone approaches a table, not swag

You don’t need a survey to see that almost all students (and faculty and staff!) like getting swag. If you look around Spring Street at lunch time or any quad, you will see swag on nearly every person. However, after surveying, we also found that over 41% of students reported that sustainability was very important to them. With such a large percentage of students caring greatly about sustainability but also running around with swag, it seems like there is a contradiction between belief and action.

Now, I am not saying I am perfect. I have an Ephelia stress toy on my desk and a Williams mug I never use in my office. What I think is happening is the culture of impulse buying and consumerism is so ingrained in us that we just take things without thinking if we actually need them. I took the Williams mug because it was free and someone was giving it out. I don’t drink coffee! I don’t drink tea! What do I need a mug for? I care about sustainability and I took these things because they were cute, available, and free. I imagine the same 41% that said sustainability was very important to them do the same, as do others. What I would like to try and see is a shift in the mindset on campus of asking ourselves, “do I needthis thing?” If we can start by rejecting a sticker or pen or water bottle here and there, eventually we can turn this into large-scale change.

In doing this project, I am finding that I am running into a lot more questions than answers. Is any swag actually sustainable? How do I help people overcome their fear of losing engagement when they reduce swag, and instead think outside the box? How do I get those that care about sustainability to not feel like they are losing out by not taking swag? How do I stop the impulse to take things simply because they are free and available? How do I cause a cultural shift away from swag when it is so ingrained in society, at Williams and beyond?

I think the answer to a lot (certainly not all!) of these questions is that we need help with student involvement. So much change at Williams has come from student involvement: committees, protests, newspaper articles, events, various movements of different kinds. Staff efforts can help challenge preconceived notions about swag, but without buy-in from students, reducing swag will be incredibly challenging.  I have already worked with staff that have held events with reduced swag or no swag at all when they typically would have lots. I have been working with departments to change current products to more eco friendly options once their current inventory runs out. We are trying to come up with creative non tangible swag options. I am working to get people excited and see that this does not have to be hard or scary or a detriment to their operations. I have more departments to work with and help educate and make changes. We are making moves, but like anything else on campus, change happens faster when students are behind it and Williams can hear your voices. We can tackle this issue from both sides.

So, what can you, the reader, do to help reduce  swag consumption and change swag culture?

  • Talk about it! Talk to friends about consumer culture, impulse decisions to take free stuff, and plastic waste. Talk to those hosting events and let them know you do not need or want swag and that you are there for the event only. Talk to event hosts about the type of swag they are giving out and whether it is sustainable or not, where it comes from, what it is made of, what its purpose is.
  • Don’t take it! Do you really need another sticker? Another water bottle? Another pen? Think before you grab something off a table about what you have already and what you will do with the item in 6 months, 1 year, 10 years. Is it sustainable? If you donate it, will someone else actually use it? What will they do with it in those same time periods? Will it end up in a landfill, the ocean? Take only what you need and know you will keep.
  • Utilize college services! See an event that interests you? Go to it. Curious about a department’s services? Stop by and talk to them. Try something new. There is a plethora of information, fun, and help available here, and the staff is desperately trying to reach you to tell you about it! They use swag to do it because unfortunately it does work sometimes, but let’s change that method. The services here are worth so much more than a free pen with a logo. You are only here for a few years, explore what is here and make use of the offerings.
  • Advocate for non-tangible giveaways or events if you really want free stuff! Food, gift cards, subscriptions, excursions, etc. Think creatively about things you can still get from events or groups that are not swag but can still be useful or fun.
  • Educate yourself! Does this topic interest you? Do some research on things that you use, sustainable materials, recycling, environmental issues, etc. Take a look at the guide below for help. Stop by the Zilkha Center or reach out to me and let’s chat! I am learning along the way as well!

Swag hierarchy showing a preference for avoiding swag, then focusing on ethical and useful swag when possible

Lena Salamanca is the Executive Assistant in the Provost’s Office at Williams College.