When a new term gains popularity and traction in the business world, it’s reasonable to dismiss it as a “buzzword” with a short shelf life. Some terminology, however, catches on and endures long term, thereafter impacting the way we talk and think about industries.

What, then, will be the legacy of the term sustainability? Has sustainability already outlasted its buzzword status, proving it’s here to stay? Or are we experiencing the word’s peak popularity before it joins the scrapheap of discarded terms like “synergy” and “freemium?”

Presently, sustainability is as hot a topic as ever throughout the promotional products industry, but there’s reason to believe the concept has staying power—that it’s not a promotional product trend, but a permanent category. Per PPAI Media, products sold on the grounds of their sustainability saw a 20% increase in 2022.

Such data suggests sustainable promo products aren’t just an idealistic fantasy, rather they’re an attainable aim for the promo industry. For practical insight into the reality of sustainability in promo, we recently spoke with Pierre Montaubin, chief product and sustainability officer at Koozie Group, an iPROMOTEu Elite Plus Vendor.

Increasing Demand for Sustainable Promotional Products

Montaubin has extensive experience in product management and sourcing. He’s seen his share of flash-in-the-pan product fads, yet he envisions a powerful future for sustainability in promo.

“We are seeing ongoing interest in sustainable promo products, and I believe demand will continue to grow,” said Montaubin. “Younger buyers are especially concerned whether brands align with their values, so I think this is the new normal for our industry and not a fleeting trend.”

His estimation matches broader trends. Per a recent Forbes survey of consumers:

  • Almost 30% said they want to improve the environment
  • 23% wish to reduce production waste
  • 22% are aiming to reduce their carbon footprint
  • 17% are concerned with animal welfare
  • 7% cited social signaling; in other words, to be recognized as being a good citizen

Further, a recent Business News Daily survey reported 72% of respondents intentionally purchase more environmentally friendly products than they did five years ago. Montaubin sees these tendencies playing out across the promotional products industry, influencing end users’ preferences for sustainable branded merchandise.

“We believe that demand from customers is going to drive adoption [of sustainable products],” said Montaubin. “Demand for sustainable products will be more of a pull from consumers versus a push from distributors.”

Montaubin cites a recent Forbes article reporting Generation Z consumers are the most likely to spend more on sustainable products; they are influencing not only their Generation X parents but also their baby boomer grandparents; and as they grow into adulthood, their influence and income levels are predicted to grow, thus their environmentally conscious buying habits will carry even more weight in the marketplace.

All of these factors inform an increasing demand for sustainable promotional products. While this bodes well for the planet, promo suppliers and distributors must similarly evolve their processes and product offerings.

Supplying Sustainable Promotional Products

To meet this growing demand, Montaubin suggests distributors continually educate themselves regarding sustainable products and practices. The next step is to ask clients:

  • How do you define sustainability?
  • What criteria do you use to determine if one product is more suitable than another for the health of the planet?
  • What information do you need to ensure you’re meeting your companies’ sustainability guidelines?

“I think we all—suppliers and distributors alike—need to do a better job at helping customers align their brands with the promo products they buy from us,” said Montaubin. “I think this is the key. You will gain trust and potentially additional business by being the ‘consultant’ and the voice of customers, making sure the giveaways they are about to put their companies’ logos on reflect their values.”

Ensuring Promo Products’ Sustainability Claims

To maintain trust and credibility with clients regarding sustainable promotional products, suppliers and distributors must be able to dig deeper and verify the products’ quality and sustainability claims.

“Suppliers who stand on solid ground with their claims should be eager to provide this information to distributors,” said Montaubin. “Just because the word ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ shows up in the product description doesn’t make it better than another product.”

Careful vetting helps align products with buyers’ sustainability standards, rather than simply “greenwashing”—the all too common, dishonest practice of making a product appear more environmentally friendly than it really is.

To overcome this barrier, Montaubin recommends building a network of trusted suppliers who have a reputable approach to sustainability.

Overcoming Price Concerns

The aforementioned reports indicate customers’ environmental values increasingly inform purchasing decisions; more and more, sustainability factors into purchases along with price. Still, it’s not uncommon for clients to balk at the cost of sustainable promotional products.

“Generally speaking, there is a premium on products made from post-consumer materials because it is more expensive to collect and sort than virgin material,” said Montaubin.

Montaubin anticipates this price gap will shrink as demand for recycled materials increases. But for now, he suggests if this price gap is too wide, distributors should consider offering items made from pre-consumer recycled material. This would include items made from manufacturing scraps, such as recycled polyester made from excess plastic from bottle production. Pre-consumer material carries a lower premium and can therefore serve clients as a better entry point into the sustainable promo product category.

Regarding the higher price point on products made from post-consumer materials, Montaubin suggests emphasizing the products’ longevity, which adds extra value in the form of increased brand impressions over the products’ lifetime.

Sustainability Initiatives in Promo

Another way for promotional product suppliers and distributors to encourage loyalty is with their own sustainability initiatives. Eco-conscious clients will welcome the opportunity to work with promotional product suppliers or distributors who share their values.

For example, Koozie Group developed an initiative called Keep It. Give It., a program which embodies the company’s passion for environmental stewardship, among the organization’s other core values. This included developing a distinction called the KG Factor to identify products with a high likelihood of being kept or gifted, as determined by a third-party, independent firm.  The KG Factor was Koozie Group’s way of addressing products that may not have an eco-friendly option.

“Over 70% of our products now carry this designation—way above the 50% we were hoping to achieve,” said Montaubin. “And we’re committed to 75% of new products earning this designation.”

Promoting Sustainably, Your Way

We hope Montaubin’s insights and Koozie Group’s strategies will serve as a valuable example, fostering inspiration for your business and throughout the promo community. At iPROMOTEu, independence is one of our primary benefits, so our Affiliates are encouraged to express their passion for sustainable promotional products in the way that is most true to them. Our preferred vendor program provides access to the industry’s most reliable suppliers, and many options for sustainable products.

Though the term sustainable may ultimately change slightly (“eco-friendly”) or become more specific (“compostable”), the concept is here to stay. To discuss more about promotional product sustainability, contact iPROMOTEu’s specialists.