Can the Promotional Products Industry Go Plastic Free?

Can the Promotional Products Industry Go Plastic Free?

We love the promo industry. But we know it can be better. How? In this series of stories, ASI Media explores five big ideas that can transform the world of promo. These aren’t quick fixes or simple changes. But with enough consideration, ambition and coordination, we think they’re all possible. And our beloved industry – and the people who live and breathe it – will be better off for it.

Early on, the supplier’s high-end weighted cotton blankets filled with lead-free glass microbeads still had some polyester lining and were packaged in plastic polybags to keep the elements out during shipping.

But sisters Elizabeth and Jennifer Grojean knew they wanted to phase that synthetic material out – both because it better fit the brand they were building and because they felt it was the right thing to do for the planet. So, the Grojeans jettisoned the polyester lining and swapped out the polybags for branded cotton tote bags – which, the sisters acknowledge, still have an environmental impact but at least can be reused.

Those decisions all came with a price tag. Jennifer notes, for example, that switching to 100% cotton blankets added around 15% to the production cost. The supplier also paid its factory partners to install water-activated paper tape dispensers so their boxes could be sealed without using plastic. Despite the added upfront costs, these are the types of decisions the sisters continue to make as they grow their business.

“It helps us know internally that we’re always making the right choice,” Elizabeth says.

Within the last few years, plastic has become one of the most high-profile targets of the sustainability movement and public ire. Gut-wrenching footage of sea turtles eating plastic and unsettling images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have helped turn public opinion, as have new studies such as the findings the average person ingests as much as a credit card’s worth of microplastic every week. The effects of pervasive plastic pollution have become impossible to ignore, and consumers are clamoring for big brands to take action.

As a luxury company with a strong retail presence, Baloo is in somewhat of a unique position compared to other suppliers. But is it possible for the promotional products industry as a whole to steer away from plastic – whether in its products, packaging or plastic-derived synthetic fabrics – and toward long-lasting items made from natural materials?

“How do we find that intersection between business realities and social impact? Our industry really struggles with that,” says Leo Friedman, CEO of Ohio-based iPromo (asi/229471). “If someone comes to us and wants to buy 25,000 plastic pens that won’t biodegrade for the next 25 years, we’ll sell them. There’s nobody that’s turning away that business. That’s kind of the sad reality.”

In the short run, the promotional products industry chooses plastic because it’s often the cheaper choice – accounting for its abundance. But that’s misleading, Elizabeth Grojean says.

“I feel like the cost of plastic is being externalized, and it needs to be built into the price of plastic,” she explains. “It’s going to be really hard in the capitalist, price-driven society that we live in to have sustainability win if it’s always more expensive.”

The environmental price of plastic, she notes, is astronomical. The vast majority is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels – contributing to climate change – and it can take hundreds of years (if ever) to biodegrade. Consider this: Last year, of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the United States, only 5% to 6% – about 2 million tons – was recycled, according to a report from environmental groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. About 85% went to landfills and 10% was incinerated (which can pollute the air with harmful chemicals). The rate of plastic recycling has actually declined since 2018, when it was at 8.7%. Scientists estimate that as much 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, where it can cause entanglement or starvation among birds, fish and other marine life.

Seth Godin, marketing expert and author of The Carbon Almanac, appeared on an industry podcast on the topic of climate change earlier this year. During the episode, Godin had a stark suggestion for helping the promo industry – and others – grasp the impact of plastic production on the planet: “Every time you make something out of plastic, you should have to keep 10 on your desk forever. The first 10 will be no big deal. When you get to 50 or 60 or 100 of them, you’re going to start thinking, ‘Maybe I should just stop making things out of plastic.’ Because the system is rewarding you for making cheap stuff out of plastic, but in the long run, the system is going to destroy us.”

On the whole, the idea of getting plastic out of the industry can be a daunting, almost Sisyphean prospect. But eco-minded promo pros don’t believe it’s a total impossibility. After all, plastic has only been around for about 115 years, and you have to go back just a few generations to see how people coped without the conveniences it’s brought.

“My generation was the generation of plastic, right?” says Debbie Abergel, chief strategy officer of Top 40 distributor Nadel (asi/279600). “We’ve made these lifestyle changes that are harmful to the world, but we can go back. There’s no harm in going back. … It was a learned behavior, so we can unlearn it.”

It won’t happen overnight. But there are steps suppliers and distributors can take to reduce their reliance on the material and steer clients toward better choices. Here are five actionable steps that distributors and suppliers can take right now to make our plastic-free future a reality.

Promo for the Planet's Board Weighs In Members of the Promo for the Planet advisory board share their thoughts on how the promotional products industry can reduce its reliance on plastic. Andy Keller, CEO, ChicoBag (asi/44811) “In the world of recycled-content fabric, virgin polyester is currently cheaper than recycled-content polyester mainly due to the fact that the actual cost of oil and natural gas extraction isn’t built into the purchase price. Much of it is externalized to taxpayers (tax credits, government subsidies) and to future generations (cleanup costs and environmental degradation). On the other hand, more of the costs are embedded into recycled content making it more expensive than virgin polyester. The fact that recycled plastic looks identical to virgin plastic content creates confusion and mix-ups as well as an economic incentive for shady businesspeople in the supply chain to dilute the recycled content with cheaper virgin material.” Daniel Cardozo, president and CEO of Ethix Merch (asi/189731) “The goal is to get big enough where we could pressure clients to stop buying plastic. If we were to say today that we would no longer sell plastic items, we may as well close up shop now. It feels crucial and equally impossible to stop selling plastic. We’ve got to have a transition plan, starting with education and encouraging alternatives. Then, there will be a tipping point that can lead to more suppliers and distributors saying no to plastic and still surviving.” Michelle Sheldon, president of Eco Promotional Products (asi/185797) “Start with packaging. Let’s work with our suppliers to eliminate the use of petroleum-based poly bags, film, peanuts, bubble wrap and packaging airbags. Plastic pollution is contaminating our waterways, soil, entering into our food chain and impacting our ecosystem. There are available alternatives. Distributors, suggest and sell products with long-lasting impressions and purpose. Many frivolous promotional products are made of plastic/petroleum and may seem inexpensive, however,  in the end cost much more socially and environmentally. Reducing the demand for low-value plastic materials can change the dynamics and allow other more useful sustainable products a chance to shine.” Theresa Hegel is an executive editor for digital content at ASI.A journalist for two decades and winner of multiple national awards, she heads up ASI’s Promo for the Planet, which focuses on trends in sustainability. Tweet: @theresahegel; email:

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