Op-Ed: Enough with the swag, already!

The outdoor industry swag culture has gotten out of hand, and it’s time we put on the brakes.

The first time I went to Outdoor Retailer, my eyes bugged out. The multi-story booths, abundance of plaid flannel shirts, and general scale of it all were sights to see, to be sure. But I was focused on the swag.

I had just started as an editor for SNEWS, and this was my first big industry event. I had come from a job as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper with a strict no-freebie policy—so strict, in fact, that we weren’t allowed to eat free food at events, even if they were funded by taxpayers. So the trade show floor at OR was like going from zero to 60. Our swag policy as reporters for what was then Outdoor Retailer Daily was basically, “don’t ask for anything, but if someone offers you something, you can say yes as long as you make it clear you can’t promise any coverage.”

I felt like a kid who’d been granted a shopping spree in a toy store. I grabbed tote bags. I scooped up lip balm. I snagged free socks and insulated mugs. And, oh, the snacks.

But three years into my career in this industry, I’ve done a total flip. We’re an industry that makes goods to last a lifetime, in pursuit of a more eco-friendly world. So why the heck are we still giving out aluminum pint cups to people who already have cupboards full of them at home? Who needs nine pairs of cheap sunglasses when you own at least one good pair? Who among us isn’t already so saturated with free tote bags that it would take shopping for a family of 52 to use them all?

I’m here with a plea: Please, for the love of Yvon Chouinard, stop with the swag.

Let me define that for you quickly. At OR, it’s super-common to hand out samples of products you want media to cover or buyers to, well, buy. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the cheap cotton t-shirts, plastic sunglasses with lenses that scratch almost instantly, neoprene coozies, cheap lip balms good for about one use before they’re lost in the car or the laundry, tote bags, ugly, low-quality briefcases and backpacks, plastic be-logo’d water bottles, insulated cups and mugs doled out by companies that specialize in anything but beverage-carrying, earbuds in a plastic case, charging bricks, and trucker hats. Anything intended first and foremost to carry your company’s name and logo.

An array of branded swag including hats, cup and coozie on a white background.
Branded swag has reached epidemic proportions in the outdoor industry.Louisa Albanese

Not only are these items mass-produced at a quality level sure to land them in dumpsters before long, they’re also a waste of money. Here’s an example: Over the years, I’ve received dozens of flash drives filled with product photography and press releases. Do you know how many times I’ve actually plugged these things in with the purpose of finding art for a story? The answer is somewhere near zero. Please, good-intentioned PR people: Just follow-up via email with a digital copy of the catalog instead.

And in lieu of handing out stuff just to give things to people, make it matter. Part of the problem with the abundance of swag I’ve seen is that it’s all the same. The first PopSocket I got was great; now I must have three or four. But I only have one cell phone.

Consider nixing the swag altogether. Donate the money to a cause your brand champions, and put up a sign saying “We’re Swag-Free Because…” and list how much money you were able to donate by foregoing the stuff. If you feel you must have something to give, make it useful. The best swag I’ve ever gotten from trade events have been simple reporter’s notebooks with the company’s logo on the front, a branded Moleskine journal, small, zippered pouches I’ve used to organize business cards and toiletries, a Klean Kanteen straw, and a Topo Designs mountain “briefcase” branded with the Visit Denver logo, which I’ve used almost every single day since I got it at IPW in May 2018. These things are easy to integrate into my everyday life; they have a purpose and are not there simply for the sake of taking.

At the last Outdoor Retailer Snow Show, I actively refused swag. I stuffed my jacket in my backpack so there wouldn’t be room to carry anything else, I brought my own water bottle and mug so I wouldn’t have any excuses to accept new ones, and I even brought my own lanyard for my badge. The easiest thing to refuse was a random, unidentifiable blinking object even the giver couldn’t explain to me. The hardest to say no to was an adorable wool felt coozie from Glerups, the slipper company. I accepted a few stickers, two pairs of Wigwam socks, samples of Brew Dr. Kombucha and, yes, another tote bag to haul them, and two NoSo Puffy Patches. But that was my entire catch.

Shifting a goods industry away from stuff for the sake of stuff isn’t going to be easy. People will always love freebies. And even those of us who are oversaturated find it hard to turn down what the giver may perceive as a useful gift. But I think we owe it to our overall mission—to play outside in a healthy, well-protected environment—to give it a solid try.

The views expressed here are solely the author’s.