By Jane Mosbacher Morris
*Originally published on the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation Blog
Companies are working harder than ever to create positive brand associations and make their values clear to consumers. This effort really matters in today’s increasingly crowded global marketplace, and in response to heightened awareness from consumers, investors, and employees about business practices. Now more than ever, companies are seeking to tell stories about themselves that show how they are being good corporate citizens in the world, and aligning their mission and values to business strategy. In 2015, more than 80% of Fortune 500 companies published corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports, compared to only 20% just four years earlier—a sign of their focus.
This includes a huge focus on branding. Corporate swag, it turns out, is a huge business, with more than $20 billion spent on it annually in the United States alone. The combined business expenditure on logoed products in the United States is more than the total economy of many countries.
Not all corporations are looking for ethically produced swag, but I think they should. This money has already been allocated; it’s just a question of changing where it’s spent. If your company focuses on the environment, and then hands out plastic key chains that people immediately toss, there’s a disconnect between your mission and your method that undermines the authenticity of your message. If people throw out that key chain or magnetic calendar (with your business logo on it), they’re figuratively trashing your company and literally making you contribute to the proliferation of waste.
Customizing in a way that aligns with your company’s values, on the other hand, gives a far better return on investment. It’s also easier, and often less expensive, than you may realize. Below are a few ways to ensure your swag showcases more than just your company name.
CHOOSE HOW IT’S MADE
You might buy branded product from a supplier producing in a zero waste production facility or that specializes in low- environmental-impact production. You could choose to purchase products made by hand, for both the unique, personal feel and because you value artisanship. You might love fabrics that have been woven or dyed in a traditional technique, made by a community keeping that skill set alive. You could choose agricultural products like coffee or chocolate that are shade-grown (rather than cultivated at a massive, clear-cut farm).
PICK WHAT IT’S MADE OF
Your products might speak for you through their constituent parts. Focused on advancing your environmental credentials? You might look for branded t-shirts made from organic cotton or recycled plastic bottles; scout out furniture and paper made from sustainable wood or fast-growing grasses; or gift stemware made from recycled glass.
DECIDE WHO WILL MAKE IT
You can customize a tote bag by buying one made by someone in a community you want to support, such as workers in the United States. You might want to support people with autism or a physical disability, and your customization could mean buying from companies employing those groups. This provides transparency into who made your product and how it was created. This transparency can reinforce your values and generate a deeper connection to the goods we procure.
You can buy from companies that source ethically or from local, independent businesses. You might customize by shopping at a company started by a woman, veteran, or minority to help diversify your suppliers. You might also focus on the give-back component—does a potential seller donate a portion of proceeds to STEM education, marine research, animals, or something else your company cares about.
People at every level of an organization have power to harness the market to make change in this way. You may be in charge of a small, regular purchase at your company—such as speaker gifts or office supplies—and that decision- making power can have a big impact on someone else’s life. Committing to changes in purchasing decisions (big or small) can have a dramatic impact on people, the planet, and ultimately the bottom line.