Several colorful gel pens

How many reusable pens do we really need in our lives? | Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

November 20, 2019

Last weekend I attended a journalism conference. Upon checking in, I received the prerequisite “swag bag” that seems to be an event standard. Inside the canvas bag I found a branded water bottle, notebook, and t-shirt. There was also a generic pen and a copy of You Are What You Read.

Gifts always make people feel good. We’re hardwired to like surprises we aren’t expecting. Except, when it comes to events, attendees now expect to receive them.

So, setting aside the fact that an element of surprise is now subdued based on this expectation, let’s unpack this particular bag’s contents.

Canvas bag: Yay! A canvas bag! I can use this when I go shopping to avoid using plastic bags. I’ve added it to the collection of 10+ other canvas bags I’ve acquired over the last couple years. But wait … when was the last time I needed more than three bags at the market? A high-quality canvas bag should last several years. Do I actually need yet another one in my life?

Water bottle: A swag bag staple, reusable water bottles are presumably meant to encourage attendees to make smarter choices regarding single-use cups. This particular bottle is nice because it can hold both cold and hot liquids, and it’s top-rack dishwasher safe.

This event had coffee and water available to attendees throughout, but single-use cups were available for use as well, which meant most people reached for those because they were within reach. I’ve heard from tour providers who offer water bottles as gift items that they’re finding it increasingly difficult to dispose of bottles travelers leave behind when they go home.

I added my new bottle to my collection of 10+ other bottles, three of which can hold hot liquids. But this surfaces a now-familiar question: Do I actually need yet another reusable bottle?

But this surfaces a now-familiar question: Do I actually need yet another reusable bottle?

Notebook and pen: A nice gesture, but this was a journalism conference. I’d bet most attendees brought both items with them. I know I did.

T-shirt: The shirt is soft, and it’s great for lazing around the house, but as a branded item, I’m not likely to wear it in public.

You Are What You Read: Now, this is a particularly thoughtful item. I appreciate being gifted a book I find relevant in my work. However, it is available in Kindle format. As a person with a minimal and environmentally aware lifestyle, that’s my preferred way to acquire reading material.

Presumably the vast majority of the gifts in our swag bags were meant to get branding out into the world with items that will be reused and seen by other people. In the case of my conference, however, I’m guessing this is not the first canvas bag, water bottle, t-shirt, or notebook attendees have ever received. Most of these items will be tucked into cabinets and drawers never to see the light of day again.

Do we curb our guilt of buying yet another canvas bag or water bottle by justifying the fact that we’ll reuse them?

A few weeks ago, I read this thought-provoking article from Ensia about whether so-called “environmentally responsible” products actually perpetuate consumerism. It got me thinking about my ever-growing collections of reusable products, many of which were gifts I’ve received at events. Do we curb our guilt of buying yet another canvas bag or water bottle by justifying the fact that we’ll reuse them? Going further, do event organizers justify their gift purchases with the idea that they need to give something away and that they’re doing good by choosing items attendees can reuse? I admit I didn’t stop to examine the items in my bag when I picked it up. It wasn’t until I packed my suitcase to leave the conference that I even bothered to see what was inside, and by then it was too late to refuse the gift bag altogether.

Adopting reusable items into our lives — and making the commitment to actually use them — is an immediate and meaningful way to reduce our environmental footprint. In doing so, it’s also important to be mindful of unintended waste created when it’s time to clean out all of those bottles, bags, notebooks, and t-shirts we never got around to using.

Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this article.


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