The US firm looking to slash the environmental cost of that supposedly free swag
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'It’s about reducing waste at the end of the stream'

The US firm looking to slash the environmental cost of that supposedly free swag

A storied Massachusetts printing company pushes ‘sustainable’ promotional material — the Stuff We All Get on the conference circuit — helping nonprofit causes in the process

  • Assortment of swag -- stuff we all get (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
    Assortment of swag -- stuff we all get (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
  • Donations to Dress for Success in Boston, a partner charity of the SwagCycle initiative (courtesy)
    Donations to Dress for Success in Boston, a partner charity of the SwagCycle initiative (courtesy)
  • Old Pittsburgh Steelers marketing materials were turned into useful and environmentally-conscious accessories by Massachusetts-based Refried Apparel (courtesy)
    Old Pittsburgh Steelers marketing materials were turned into useful and environmentally-conscious accessories by Massachusetts-based Refried Apparel (courtesy)
  • Example of promotional materials produced by Grossman Marketing Group (courtesy)
    Example of promotional materials produced by Grossman Marketing Group (courtesy)

BOSTON — Before a company decides to produce large amounts of swag — the “Stuff We All Get” at conferences and such — promotional marketing expert Ben Grossman wants one important question to be answered: What will the swag’s life-cycle look like?

Approaching $30 billion a year, the swag industry is a boon for cheap labor-based manufacturers abroad. In return, Americans bedazzle their lives with a never-ending stream of t-shirts, stickers, mugs, and hundreds of other branded items.

For generations, Grossman’s family printing company has been a leader in creating swag for some of Boston’s top sports teams, universities, as well as global manufacturing clients. Now, the organization is leading efforts to mitigate the environmental impact of promotional materials with a new initiative.

In addition to concerns over the foreign labor practices behind swag shipped to America, the stuff fills many a landfill at home, as well as adding to other forms of pollution. Shockingly, the average life of swag is well under a year, clocking in at eight months.

“Our goal is to helps organizations be more responsible with the materials they produce,” said Grossman, founder of Grossman Marketing Group’s green marketing and sustainability practice.

As co-president of the firm, Grossman launched the “SwagCycle” initiative earlier this year. The idea is for makers of swag to be more thoughtful about their products’ life-cycle, including opportunities to repurpose, upcycle, or donate unneeded paraphernalia to nonprofits.

“It’s about reducing waste at the end of the stream,” said Grossman, who lives with his wife and two children outside Boston.

Old Pittsburgh Steelers marketing materials were turned into useful and environmentally-conscious accessories by Massachusetts-based Refried Apparel (courtesy)

The SwagCycle model has three steps, beginning with checking out troves of promotional items. If a decision to repurpose is made, the second step of dealing with branding guidelines can begin. For example, can the old logo live on in the marketplace via a charitable donation?

The third step of SwagCycle is to match unwanted items with a vetted charity or send them for recycling “to leave the smallest footprint possible,” said Grossman in an interview with The Times of Israel.

Among all the swag created annually, apparel is the largest category. Each year, the average American tosses away a whopping 81 pounds of textiles, most of it clothing. Through SwagCycle, individuals and companies can help reverse the trend.

For example, the local charities Second Chances and Dress for Success are two groups that benefit from SwagCycle’s rechanneled apparel, allowing them to help under-served clients “dress the part” for interviews and employment. From United Way to Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, Grossman’s firm has aided some of the city’s largest nonprofits with repurposed donations.

The Hiriya Landfill Restoration Project, located southeast of Tel Aviv, Israel. Food waste dumped into landfill is doubly negative for the environment, because of the environmental costs of producing food. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Pharmaceutical companies also figure among SwagCycle partners. In one fortuitous match explained by Grossman, a company decided to rebrand and had no use for toothbrushes with the old logo from a patient kit. SwagCycle set them up with Project Stretch, a nonprofit offering free dental services to children in the US, Mexico and Honduras.

For Grossman, SwagCycle is ultimately about guiding companies to envision a useful future for swag, whether before manufacturing begins or during a rebranding process. When a line of high-end water bottles suddenly became off-brand for the maker, SwagCycle facilitated their donation to a summer camp for under-served children.

“We ask companies if they are willing to have these go to charities and have them remain in the marketplace,” said Grossman.

‘Trash into Treasure’

Ben Grossman is the great-grandson of Max Grossman, who founded the family business in 1910. Back then, the firm was called Massachusetts Envelope Company, and Max operated out of a one-room office with a small printing press.

In addition to mastering the promotional marketing scene, the Grossman family has long been involved in philanthropy and civics. The Jewish family’s romance with politics began with Max Grossman helping to reelect John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald — JFK’s grandfather — as Boston’s mayor, also in 1910.

In more recent decades, Steve Grossman — Ben’s father, and the company’s former head — served as Massachusetts state treasurer and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And at the end of September, Grossman’s wife — Becky Walker Grossman — announced a run for the seat held by Joseph P. Kennedy III in the US House of Representatives.

Ben Grossman with his wife, Becky Walker Grossman, and two children (courtesy)

The inspiration for SwagCycle, said Grossman, came from his involvement in the Product Stewardship Institute. Specifically, the group focuses on passing legislation that compels companies to take responsibility for their products, whether through drug takebacks, the recycling of mattresses, or other steps.

Unlike those legislative-based measures, SwagCycle seeks to educate the public and help companies act on their own, said Grossman. One way to protect the environment, he said, is for people to “turn trash into treasure.” Part of this involves creative thinking and the ability to match “swag” with the right upcycling partner.

Grossman explained that an example of upcycling is the Massachusetts firm Refried Apparel, where, according to their website, “dead-stock is turned into revenue” after designers upcycle unwanted materials into socially conscious fashion.

‘Upcycled’ skirt made by Massachusetts-based Refried Apparel, in which discarded promotional materials were turned into fashion (courtesy)

An example of upcycling through product transformation is that eight plastic bottles can be turned into a t-shirt. There are few limits to what can be diverted from landfills and repurposed, from using billboard vinyl to make backpacks to turning old webcams into surveillance systems.

According to Grossman, the key to fighting the waste epidemic involves education. For example, the firm is talking to conference and event organizers about placing SwagCycle recycling bins inside and outside of venues.

It’s unlikely the swag industry will shrink anytime soon, but its impact on the planet can be minimized, said Grossman, who added he’s been inspired by “the efficient use of resources” in the Jewish state when it comes to environmental stewardship.

“A lot of sustainability is educating and helping people understand what other choices they can make,” said Grossman.

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