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To take or not to take free stuff?

I spent the earlier part of last week attending a conference for university sustainability officers. The annual AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) conference attracts over 2,000 people, a mid-sized gathering. Like many other conferences, AASHE has an “Expo” – a place for sponsors to showcase their products. This year, as I came back from it, I experienced a bit of a moral dilemma that I hadn’t been expecting.

Let me back up a moment and say that I was raised to appreciate free things and getting good deals (yup – a perfect case of the Asian stereotype). My family was anything but a group of staunch environmentalists but, oh we surely kept every single plastic bag we were ever given from the grocery store bagging lady (and then reused them as many times as possible) because they were free! And who doesn’t love free stuff?!

Well, apparently, I don’t. Taking free things whenever they’re proffered is kind of the opposite of “reducing” your consumption.

So great. I won’t take free pens made out of bamboo, flash drives that convert into pens (they’re kind of cool), more reusable bags, but Reeses peanut butter cups are totally acceptable because I would eat something else anyway (right?).

Beyond just my individual decisions though, is there any hope of actually changing the fundamental nature of conference exhibits and its incessant need to push little knickknacks onto people?

There are dozens of sustainability conferences every year. Some, like the Greenbuild conference (which overlapped with AASHE), bring 10-20 times the number of people, which dramatically increases the number of exhibitors. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of industry-specific conferences ever year. There are outdoor booths, and event fairs; the list is never-ending.

The event and conference planning industry is well aware of the gross waste (and resulting emissions) associated with putting on a conference – including all the travel that is needed to get participants from across the country (sometimes even across the world), the immense energy use of the event facility (large convention centers), and the endless quantities of paper for flyers, brochures, posters, whatever. Conference greening is growing more popular, and there are now major efforts to reduce paper use, source locally grown food, bring reusable coffee mugs, etc.

But the exhibition stage is an untouched area, which makes sense because it’s a trickier issue to address. These are your sponsors: they are paying you to use your space so they can market their products. The last thing conference organizers want to do is tell their sponsoring exhibitors that they have to stop giving out freebies. It’s almost written into an exhibitor’s DNA – free things are what get people to stop by and come talk to you!

Instead, what if exhibitors did the following?

Give away something larger, like an iPad. You attract more people to your booth with the hopes of winning something actually cool, rather than taking away one more nerf ball with the company logo.

Juggle. Seriously, it would leave a more lasting impressing than the pen they’re bound to loose on the flight home.

Go paperless. At the very least, get rid of any miscellaneous flyers because they really won’t end up anywhere useful.

Or maybe people really do just love free things, and exhibitors are just meeting their demands. If so, then the root of the problem is much more individual than one might expect.

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