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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  1. Tom Wilson - October 19, 2011

    Specific recycle bins at the exits. Not generic paper, glass, plastic bins.
    A bin for xyz’s nerf balls, a bin for abab’s slick paper flyers, and a bin for qrqr’s plasitc pens.
    Ascertain how much individuals really want cheap crap. Blanket tweets or e-mails to everyone’s iPhone/Pad would have more impact.
    tw/Boise

  2. Rick Shireman - October 19, 2011

    1. Reverse give-aways: Encourage venders or overall exhibition to provide incentives for conference attendees NOT to accept free give-aways (perhaps encourage venders to provide product purchase credits to attendees in lieu of giveaways, such as a percent reduction in the vender’s product or service cost if purchased during or within a reasonable period after the conference).
    2. Encourage exchange of services rather than free products (perhaps a chair massage, or a free on-site or off-site analysis of a specific organizational need, or an entertainment option such as an on-site art exhibition or concert, or some other valuable but non-product oriented incentive for stopping at the vender’s exhibit.
    3. Acknowledge that venders who do not provide free give-aways or who provide sustainable alternatives to give-aways will receive a reduced vender participation fee from the conference organizers geared to encourage an overall reduction in give-away items.

  3. Benjamin Ghiglione - October 19, 2011

    I also understand this dilemma. Everyone loves free stuff and I am of no exception. My only advice here would be it would be nice if the free stuff was useful, because then it will have a purpose. I would also like the free stuff to be environmentally friendly. Something you can use and when you are done with it you can put it in the recycle bin, compost bin, etc. If we consider the items sustainable life cycle, I think it helps the cause. Let’s admit it people do like free stuff. But if that stuff is made locally from eco ingredients I see less harm.

  4. Anonymous - October 19, 2011

    Could not agree more. I stopped taking free, useless marketing stuff years ago. If more people adopted this mindset, demand for free stuff would drop and supply of free, generally useless marketing stuff would soon follow suit. At least, that’s my hope.

  5. Sabrina - November 3, 2011

    Actually Greenbuild has an amazing greening program for the whole conference including exhibitors. Exhibitors need to meet the Greenbuild Mandatory Exhibition Green Guidelines that address many aspects including communications and collateral. Under communications and collateral exhibitors need to do one of the following: eliminate print or promotional giveaways, limit the quantity to less than 5,000 handouts and giveaways combined, OR provide collateral that is made of sustainable materials. I think this is a great start and something many conferences can adopt.

  6. Sarah Adams - November 4, 2011

    As someone who attends and occasionally exhibits at conferences, we have chosen to go paperless and give away only things that are made responsibly and/or have a legitimate use, and sometimes we don’t give anything away. We have exhibited where we are there for information and can give anyone interested in following up a business card with our info and website on it. I think it’s a fine way to do business and it demonstrates that you actually want to walk the talk.