Reimagining Sustainable Event Gifting

Think about shifting to a more environmentally responsible attendee-appreciation strategy.

Image by lovelyday12 for Adobe Stock
Image by lovelyday12 for Adobe Stock

The dramatic shifts in how we convene in 2020 and 2021 have given us all a chance to approach our event choices with a fresh perspective. At MeetGreen, our 27-year-old sustainable event planning and consulting agency, we also experienced a similar rethinking and reframing. Never before had we broken our momentum so thoroughly — which gave us the opportunity to take a step back.

Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability for MeetGreen
Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability for MeetGreen

Of the many learnings during the past year and half, one of the most unexpected and enduring for our team has been a renewed recognition of the environmental impacts of event gifting. In so many cases, the sustainability of our events can be negatively affected as a result of swag and gifting choices, which have largely operated under the radar. Given the seismic shifts in the meetings and events industry, there truly has never been a time like the present to reimagine possibilities for a more environmentally responsible attendee-appreciation strategy. 

Hidden Impacts of Digital Event Gifting

From a purely environmental-footprint perspective, as might be expected, digital events are nearly always more sustainable than their physical counterparts. Given the removal of attendee travel from the equation, many digital events reduce emissions by 95 percent or more compared with a typical in-person conference. During our studies of event emissions trends at MeetGreen, we began to see, however, a dramatic increase during digital events of swag and gift boxes being mailed directly to participants' homes. This can negate environmental gains gleaned from going virtual. For example, a two-day 1,000-person digital event would see its emissions increase 96 percent (!) simply by mailing a standard 10-pound gift box to each attendee. Even lighter items on a seemingly small scale can have significant impacts when viewed as one-way flights and shipments to attendees' homes.

Alternatives to Physical Gifting

Commit to Net-Zero Carbon
Alarming evidence of the man-made climate crisis should be a call to action for meeting professionals.

One organization that is rethinking traditional gifting models with an eye towards sustainability is Unwrapit. They set out to tackle the carbon emissions and landfill issues associated with swag and physical gifting at events and have been on this mission since before the pandemic started. In place of physical gifts, Unwrapit substitutes exclusively experiential, digital and charitable options instead. 

Since March 2021, Unwrapit has helped its customers send 2,339 gifts virtually — which means 2,339 fewer parcels loaded onto trucks, trains and airplanes. Another fascinating component to their strategy is that Unwrapit always encourages its customers to include at least one "gift for the planet" and a "gift to pay it forward" among the options presented to recipients. For example, you can offer digital learning with MasterClass subscriptions, experiences through SpaFinder wellness gift cards or Charity on Top gift cards to encourage recipients to give back.

Safe and Sustainable

In addition to reducing environmental impact, fewer items circulating or being distributed in a physical event can further mitigate any potential transmission vectors in pandemic times. If a gift program is required for your event, making an effort to source items source items — perhaps local to the recipient or the event's destination — that have some form of positive environmental or social benefit can be a great way to drive change incrementally. 

Giving Back

From a purely marketing standpoint, would your brand rather publicize meaningless trinkets or meaningful impact? At MeetGreen we have found that companies are ready to put their resources behind community and planetary initiatives. During your event, you can include attendee upvoting to allocate funds across a range of options, which can help create a heightened sense of participation and enthusiasm. The recipients of these investments can be organizations with an urgent need or our planet, which can benefit from sponsored tree plantings or carbon offsets. Such a shift in the mindset around what attendee gifting can look like is also good for your organization's image. 

Gifting Words of Wisdom

I can remember early on in my event training at MeetGreen, when I asked our founder Nancy Zavada for some ideas regarding “sustainable swag” for a client. Her answer stuck with me as wise then and encapsulates the powerful opportunity we have in our organizations and events to effect change: “Really, the best swag is no swag at all. Imagine all the good that could be done in the world with a company’s gifting budget.” Let’s leverage this unique moment in our industry to emerge better, smarter and more sustainable by shifting how we gift.

Eric Wallinger is MeetGreen's director of sustainability. With 15+ years of experience in event and conference planning and delivery, Wallinger's areas of expertise include sustainability initiatives, process improvement strategies, stakeholder communications and data management. He earned a LEED Accredited Professional credential with the U.S. Green Building Council in 2010.