Branded merchandise - striking a balance between impact and sustainability

Branded merchandise - striking a balance between impact and sustainability
21 Dec 2022

Written by Leah Allen, Marketing Manager


You’ve probably all received a branded promo item in the past and some of you reading this might of even received one of our Four goodies. Now the real question is where is that item now? The answer I want to hear is ‘sitting pride of place on my desk’, however the sad truth is that many promotional items end up in the bottom of a drawer or worst in the bin. This is contributing to the climate crisis and on a monumental scale. Over 45% of people are likely to throw out merchandise as soon as they receive it, meaning that most swag will end up in landfill and will be contributing to the already catastrophic environmental situation.  

But is there a solution?

As Marketing Manager at Four Recruitment part of my role is to shout about the brand and promote it in the best light. This includes ordering branded merchandise to help engage clients and spread the word about Four. But the constant struggle I face is a trilemma between cost, quality and effectiveness of branded items.

I have written this post to share my thoughts on the merchandise industry, the alternative options that exist and what we’re trying to do at Four to reduce our impact on the planet.


Why do people use merchandise?

I can’t discount the importance of branded items in our industry and at Four we use a variety of products across a wide range of situations. We gift them at events, client meetings, graduate fairs and to congratulate or celebrate milestones with our candidates. There is no doubt that they can deliver a memorable and engaging experience if used in the right way and of course improving brand awareness is always a positive.

For example, when our candidates reach their one-year anniversary in their roles we send a bag of sweets all packaged up in a lovely looking Four branded tin. We think this is a really nice gift and something that many other recruitment consultancies probably don’t do, which sets us apart.

Candidate Anniversary Sweet Tins


As a self-confessed eco-warrior I take into account the sustainability of our gifts whenever I’m considering purchasing new products. When it came to this gift I opted for a stainless steel tin, which can be reused or alternatively recycled and of course the sweets are zero waste (to a degree). So I like to think that this item is one of our lower waste ones.


The struggle

As I said before the difficulty is finding gifts that our clients and candidates will like and use, without spending extortionate amounts.

Currently around 10% of my marketing budget is spent on merchandise and I need to be able to justify this and ensure that anything I buy has the desired impact and generates ROI.

The problem with the promotional industry is that many companies just whack your logo on cheap, nasty plastic products and convince you that they are great gifts. I’m guilty of making mistakes over the years and I’ve learnt that quality really does cost more. Ultimately, if you want to gift something that your clients and candidates will appreciate then it’s probably going to be a significant investment.



Luckily there is an increasing demand for more eco-friendly and sustainable stock but with this comes the issue of greenwashing.

There are many companies that just use buzzwords to help sell products but how many companies look beyond those words? For example, ‘Compostable’ is a widely used term, a brilliant way of reducing wastage, but how many people know how composting works? If I throw a compostable item in the general waste bin, no oxygen will get to it and it won’t compost, so is it any more eco than any other item?

Bamboo items are now becoming increasingly popular with many companies claiming that their bamboo products are ‘all natural’ or ‘biodegradable’. However, these products are usually only partly bamboo. For example a bamboo speaker is still going to be a speaker, made up of metal and plastic components but just the outer shell is bamboo – NOT biodegradable!

If we strip it right back then the most sustainable option would be to opt for no product at all but this can go against corporate objectives and company initiatives so it’s important to look for alternatives to ensure you’re getting brand exposure but in the best possible way.


What can I do?

The best way to combat this problem is firstly to become aware of what you are buying and sharing with your stakeholders. Try conducting an audit of every branded item you buy.

Try to find out:

  • Where it came from – many items are purchased in bulk from China which means huge amounts of carbon are burnt in order to transport the goods here. It’s always better to opt for UK stock where possible.
  • What it’s packaged in – in my experience many items will be packaged in a plastic bag or bubble wrap and then a carboard box, insider a bigger cardboard box. Try speaking to your supplier to see if they can request items without additional plastic.
  • Feedback on the products – the best thing to do is speak to the recipients of your gifts and find out what they thought of the merchandise or create a survey. This way you can get a better steer on what products they would find useful.

Once you’ve got this information then you will be better informed to make smarter decisions moving forward and can start to be more savvy with your procurement of gifts.


What are the alternatives?

When sourcing promotional items I always try and opt for something that is going to last a long time and be reusable. Improving the longevity of a product should hopefully reduce its chances of ending up in the bin. Alternatively, I look for products made from easily and widely recycled materials, like glass.

Some of my recent items include:

  • Stainless steel water bottle
  • Grow your own herb pencil
  • Cotton tote bags
  • A glass and bamboo lunchbox

Other alternatives that I’ve come across during my research rely on removing the physical item altogether and instead sending digital gift cards. This obviously reduces waste and ensures the recipient gets exactly what they want – which means nothing ends up in the bin. Win win!

Prezzee allows you to brand your e-gift card, add a personalised message and even offer unlimited bulk distribution via email or SMS, which means mass corporate gifting is a doddle.

Hugg is similar in that it allows you to send personalised and branded gift cards but the recipient is able to redeem the gift most relevant to them. This is particularly useful if you don’t know your client too well. You can send them a gift for Hotel Chocolat (for example) and they can select which item they prefer.


What we're doing at Four

As I mentioned earlier I always try to purchase items that are re-usable and will last or I ensure that the materials are easily recyclable. This is the same when it comes to our paper marketing materials too. Wherever possible we look to use recycled and recyclable card stock to reduce our environmental impact through the production of any leaflets or brochures.

We have worked with Empine on many of our products including flyers, portfolios, USBs and the very first item I purchased was a roller banner.

If you work in Marketing you know that many materials become quickly outdated, which can lead to a huge amount of product wastage. Maybe this isn’t so bad when there’s a few outdated leaflets that can go in the recycling bin but when it’s a roller banner, you have very little choice other than throwing the entire thing into a skip, which will undoubtedly end up in landfill. Jacob at Empine came to me with a great solution where the graphics used on roller banners are interchangeable on a single base. This meant that if the banner became outdated we only needed to return the graphic panel to him, where it would be recycled, instead of throwing the entire unit away, including the perfectly functioning and usable base.

From there I have worked with Jacob on a number of products and I always know he will source the best products from a cost and sustainability viewpoint.

Jacob Knowles, Business Director at Empine Group

“My advice for sustainability when it comes to print and promotional materials is can we be better than we were yesterday. When you look beyond the buzzwords there are so many elements that contribute to being more sustainable and you could quickly become overwhelmed trying to create the perfect product. It could also become very expensive and not all businesses have the budget to do that. For our clients, the main areas we look at are; How materials are sourced, what materials we use, production processes required, transportation (has it come from around the world when it could be made in the UK), production wastage, reusability, end user and disposal.

The ones commonly overlooked are the sourcing and end user, however we have some really great ways of working these to your advantage, not only when it comes to being more sustainable but in improving your brand exposure, visibility and reputation by making this part of a wider campaign.”


To conclude

There is no hard or fast rule when it comes to becoming more sustainable with your promotional materials but the first and best place to start is to become more aware. Then you can start to source more responsibly and in a perfect world your items will be used time and time again, helping your brand to get the exposure it deserves.

Remember there are lots of alternatives out there so don’t be scared to challenge conventions and try something new – after all that might be the thing that gets your brand noticed and spoken about which is exactly what we all want to achieve. 

I would love to know what you're doing to create noise around your brand, whilst also considering the environment. Let me know and get in touch on Linked In


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