How to Go Green With Event Gifting

Tips to help meeting planners shift to a more responsible and sustainable attendee-appreciation strategy. 

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

The dramatic shifts in how we’ve convened 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 looked at the environmental impacts of event gifting, how an event’s sustainability can be negatively affected by our swag and gifting choices. We then reimagined a more environmentally responsible attendee-appreciation strategy. 

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

Hidden Impacts of Digital Gifting

From a purely environmental perspective, digital events are nearly always more sustainable than their physical counterparts. Taking attendee travel out of the equation, most digital events reduce emissions by 95 percent or more compared with a typical in-person conference. Studying event emissions trends, however, we began to see a dramatic increase during digital events of swag and gifts being mailed to participants. This can negate earth-friendly gains of going virtual. For example, a two-day 1,000-person digital event would see its emissions increase 96 percent (!) by mailing a standard 10-pound gift box to each attendee. Even lighter items 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 is rethinking traditional gifting with an eye towards sustainability. Unwrapit tackles the carbon emissions and landfill issues associated with swag and gifting by substituting items with experiential, digital and charitable options instead. 

Since March 2021, the company has helped its customers send more than 2,500 gifts virtually — 2,500 fewer parcels loaded onto trucks, trains and airplanes. Unwrapit also encourages its customers to include at least one “gift for the planet” and a “gift to pay it forward” in the options presented to recipients. For example, you can offer MasterClass subscriptions, SpaFinder wellness gift cards and Charity on Top gift cards. 

Safe and Sustainable

Fewer items being handed out at an in-person event lessens possible touchpoints for Covid-transmission. But if you must have giveaways, make an effort to source items responsibly — perhaps local to the recipient or the event’s destination. 

Giving Back

From a marketing standpoint, would your brand rather publicize meaningless trinkets or meaningful impact? During your event, you can have attendees vote to allocate funds across a range of charitable options, which can create heightened participation and enthusiasm. Choose our planet, which can benefit from sponsored tree plantings or carbon offsets, or organizations with an urgent need to receive the donations. Thus you shift the mindset around what attendee gifting looks like. 

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.