With the world changing as it is, brands and consumers alike becoming more environmentally-aware, and the unfortunate decrease in demand of promotional and branded products due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, it is a great time for a change. No longer does promotional merchandise need to be about “what can we get for the lowest price?”, but more “what can we do to see a return on investment in the long-run”. So, how does this involve sustainable promotional products?
COVID-19 has brought about an era of change. The unification of people in a global struggle has ignited a shared desire to care more – about people, about minorities, about the world. Even before the pandemic, consumers were demanding more and more from brands and expecting at least a minimal level of social responsibility. Now, being socially responsible and displaying corporate values is not optional.
“Purpose is arguably the new brand currency.” – Marketing Week
What is ‘Purpose’?
Arguably, the purpose of any business is to make money. After all, businesses simply cannot afford to survive without doing so. However, often the most successful businesses are the ones who serve a deeper purpose. Providing a product or service that is high in demand, is perhaps the most common of these purposes. Others are driven by, not just the need to survive financially or to supply a demand, but by striving for a deep-rooted, longstanding purpose.
General examples of such purposes could be:
- To be a pillar for underserved or ignored communities.
- To spark (or contribute to) change in social, cultural, religious, political or environmental affairs.
- To spread awareness or enjoyment of foreign cultures and countries through accessibility to a culture-specific product or service.
- To create a better way of living through technological innovation.
- To inspire and reassure consumers struggling with aspects of life.
- To provide for impoverished or endangered life.
The list could go on…
One thing all these purposes have in common is the strive for better: better living, better spending… simply, a better future. And it’s this purpose, this intention that a business is backed by, that will keep a company driven through difficult times and hardship.
An exemplary tale is that of Nokia. The once mobile-and-tech kings were drastically beaten at their own game when Apple brought out the first iPhone. When Apple started developing the touchscreen phone (a revolutionary invention at the time), Nokia was not swayed. Instead of rushing to beat this latest innovation, they remained confident that their customers would stay loyal to them, as they always had. The rest is history. Today, this story is told to demonstrate how complacency can lead to a business’s downfall. Had Nokia strived to do better for their customer and their product, had they wanted to improve on what they had already achieved, they might still be Number 1 in the mobile industry today.
A brilliant article by EY Global discusses the importance of purpose in brands and raises the point of diminishing brand control in a world of rising social media. Not only do consumers expect brands to recognise and address current issues, but those who stay silent on these issues leave themselves liable to criticism. Simply put being ‘neutral’ when faced with social, political or environmental issues is no longer good enough. Brands now need to actively strive for the better.
What is a ‘sustainable’ promotional product?
As the discussion on sustainability continues to grow, the term gets used when addressing a variety of issues. The exact definition of sustainability is the ability to maintain [something] at a certain level or rate, often referring to environmental sustainability and the depletion of natural resources. However, there is no specific guideline to what earns a product the title of being ‘sustainable’.
For example, a product can be:
- Made from recycled materials (but not necessarily recyclable itself)
- Made in a solar-powered factory with a low carbon footprint
- Made from materials that are less harmful than others
- Made in machines that have been designed to produce as little waste as possible
- Packaged in recyclable or biodegradable packaging.
There are now many products out there that meet at least one of these criteria, but where does a product become deemed as ‘sustainable’? Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer. Whilst a product may be made wholly of recycled materials in a clean, minimum-waste factory, if that product is being sold on the other side of the world it has to be shipped there using fuel and creating carbon emissions and pollution. Yet, it may still be marketed as a ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ product once it reaches its destination.
A report by the BPMA in 2019 found that 42% of promotional merchandise distributors believe that a product should be 100% sustainable in order for it to be marketed as such. 48% believe that a product need only be 50% sustainable to do so.
The same report found that 75% of businesses in the UK agreed that a consistent standard for what ‘sustainable’ means in products would help their businesses and that 50% of these businesses felt their clients care about sustainability, but simply do not understand the terms used in discussing sustainable products. Whilst we may be without a definite guideline for what can be deemed ‘sustainable’ and what cannot, we are still able to choose products with better, eco-friendly elements to them. For example, a recyclable product manufactured overseas will still be better for the planet than a non-recyclable product manufactured in the same place, despite it not being entirely sustainable or eco-friendly.
The most preferred alternative ‘sustainable’ products chosen by promotional merchandise companies in the UK were recyclable ones, closely followed by those made of more eco-friendly materials.
Why use sustainable products for promotional merchandise?
Concern for the environment is not a new concept, but with the rise in focus on social and political issues, demand for brands to address their environmental stance has consequently increased. There are small but impactful changes businesses can make to improve their environmental impact. One of these changes is choosing sustainable, recyclable and/or eco-friendly promotional merchandise for your business. A study done in 2019 showed that 42% of consumers have a more favourable opinion of an advertiser if the promotional product was environmentally friendly. As this statistic may have increased in the past year, it goes without saying that there is a clear and rising demand for companies to embrace environmentally friendly practices.
For many businesses, supplying a demand is enough incentive to change products. And if there is a demand for sustainable products, there will be a natural incline in their production and usage. However, should it be that this is the only incentive to use sustainable products? Brands and businesses need to survive, of course, but using sustainable products may be more rewarding in the long term, though often costlier to begin with. Omitting the financial aspect, there are many other reasons to use sustainable products.
When a business or brand chooses to use a sustainable product, they are choosing better conditions for all stakeholders. What is often swept under the carpet is the true detriment that comes with mass production in any industry. Factory workers experiencing poor working conditions and very low wages, alongside the polluting of local biosystems and emissions of greenhouse gases that come with large-scale factory production can be minimised, or entirely avoided when being conscious of where and how a business is sourcing their products.
If cost and expenses are a major concern (and they usually are), the 2019 BPMA report, conducted at the UK World Trade show for promotional merchandise suppliers, found that the majority of distributors and suppliers of promotional merchandise would spend up to 25% more on products that are sustainable. This is matched by the clients of promotional merchandise companies, the vast majority of them also willing to spend up to 25% more for sustainable products.
How to be more conscious of your promotional products: What products are best?
It has long been established that the most popular and effective promotional products are those that consumers can use. Not only does using a product more frequently create a longer-lasting impression of the brand but keeps that product from being thrown away. Therefore, it is imperative that brands and companies choose their promotional products with a purpose, and not to have them simply exist.
The BPMA 2019 report found that tech products, especially chargers and USBs, are amongst the longest kept products. They are also some of the most popular, with sales on USBs making up 4.4% of the market value in 2019. Check out the benefits of sustainable tech products in our mini blog here*.
Branded apparel and accessories also seem to be the most used by consumers, as well as the most effective with brand recall, with 85% of consumers remembering the advertiser from apparel. Promotional t-shirts are often kept for 2 years or longer and make up a quarter of sales of branded merchandise. However, apparel production is one of the most polluting and harmful industries in the world. This is an extremely current issue developing by the day, after being brought to light by scandals within the fashion industry. As this subject develops, we address the prevalent issues and efforts in overcoming them in our blog ‘Promotional Apparel and The Cost of Clothing’. We’ve also extended our range of products to include a variety of more eco-friendly apparel, you can check this out here!
Fortunately, organisations such as Fashion Revolution have inspired movements amongst consumers to shop more sustainably. (‘Second-hand September’ is a new social media trend seeing consumers shop second-hand only for the entire month of September). In turn, this is seeing more and more labels look for sustainable alternatives in production. 83% of promotional merchandise suppliers in the UK saw at least a 25% increase in enquiries about sustainable products in 2019. Therefore, the demand is certainly there.
Somethings to consider when sourcing sustainable products for your promotional merchandise can be:
- The factory. There are many audits and certifications factories and suppliers can achieve to demonstrate their environmental impact, as well as their efforts in tackling slave labour, working conditions and fair pay.
- The materials used in a product. In 2019, plastic goods made up 6.6% of the UK’s promotional goods market value. Would it be possible to replace any of the product’s material with something recyclable or biodegradable? There are now many options for recyclable plastics, amongst many other materials.
- The reusability of the product. As mentioned beforehand, a consumer reusing a branded product is not only good for the business and brand recall, but for keeping products from being thrown away and ending up in a landfill.
- The geographical location of the manufacturer.
Relocation, relocation, relocation:
One change that we can already see happening is the reshoring of manufacturing: bringing production back to the UK. Primarily due to the challenges of Brexit and COVID-19, the ‘Make It British’ movement can already be seen. Though it may be unavoidably more expensive to produce in the UK, it can defer transportation costs and tariffs that would otherwise exist with imports, as well as reducing carbon footprint and the fuel used in long-distance freight.
Producing on home shores also means higher quality control and allows easier oversight of production processes. In addition to this, having accessible control of the production process could mean less waste, more control of materials used and a faster turnaround for products in high demand – a winning game for everyone. Manufacturing in factories that are geographically closer to their end-use location brings it’s own benefits: quicker travel, less money and fuel used in the transportation of goods and, often, less risk of damage or loss of goods.
On top of these benefits, brands must consider how they are being portrayed through their branded merchandise. Consumers often associate high-quality products with high-quality brands. For example, if a high-end, luxury travel agent used cheap, easily broken branded products for their business it wouldn’t be accurately representative of their brand and displays a negative reputation, and therefore may have an adverse effect, making the promotional product an ineffective expense. It was found that 53% of people have a more favourable opinion of an advertiser if the promotional product was made in their country, as this can give the influence of being a higher quality product.
Another great reason to look at sourcing products in the UK is the growth of eco-friendly manufacturers around the country. We are seeing more and more factories throughout the UK making drastic changes to improve their carbon footprint and offer more eco-friendly production. A great example of this is the production facilities behind one of our partners! Their Yorkshire-based factory is run by 100% renewable energy, including three wind turbines, a team of solar panels and even a hydro-electricity turbine! Since 2009, they have reduced their energy use by 50%, simply through investing in machinery and efficient electricity alternatives. This kind of commitment to overhauling infrastructure in order to see long-term rewards is becoming more common in British factories today.
We are lucky to be living in a time where, every day, more and more technologies are being developed to improve the way we produce, consume, and dispose of products.
With the future being as unprecedented as the present, those in positions of power to make long-lasting decisions must consider not only the sustainability of their products but the effect it can have on the sustainability of their business.