More and more consumers are becoming aware of the need for informed decisions in their choices if we are to save what’s left of the planet’s depleted natural environments and mitigate the effects of climate change through reduced carbon emissions.
In response, more and more business are seeking to reduce their environmental impacts. Single-use plastic products are increasingly being phased out in favor of better alternatives. Going green is not only a responsible course of action for many businesses but a financially acute move as well.
Elizabeth Venz, president of the American-British promotional products agency Jack Nadel International (JNI), has spoken to Sustainability Times about how business can embrace more sustainable practices.
Sustainability Times: More and more companies are pledging to embrace sustainable practices in their operations. How well are they succeeding in general, do you think?
Elizabeth Venz: The biggest trend – or change – we are seeing in the brand merchandising industry is a nod to products that help reduce waste, are recyclable and are made from natural alternatives to single-use plastic items, such as stainless steel or bamboo straws, biodegradable pens, cork coffee tumblers and other useful items made from natural materials.
We seem to have reached a tipping point in cultural attitudes towards eco-friendly and sustainable products. While this isn’t yet showing significantly in our sales figures, sustainability is becoming the norm for many companies, rather than an aspiration. With many great new eco-friendly products coming to market, we are seeing the underlying sustainability model gather steam.
ST: What steps should a company take to be more sustainable and eco-friendly?
Elizabeth Venz: An impact assessment is a good place to start. Reviewing how the company goes to market and what effects its products and services are having on the environment. With that in mind – and with the priorities clearly in order – one can then look at branded merchandise as part of the overall strategy. At JNI branded merchandise happens to be our core business, so by offering clients sustainable alternatives – and encouraging the rest of our industry – we can maximize our environmental impact as corporate citizen.
We primarily steer clients away from products that are toxic or harmful to the environment but instead try to offer those that are reusable or recyclable and better still products that are made ethically using renewable materials. In addition, we look to source products as close to the end destination as possible, which cuts down both CO2 emissions and transportation costs. Global vendor networks allow us to do this reasonably well.
So, on the sourcing and logistics side at least, often the environmentally friendly solution is also the financially savvy one too, and that definitely helps!
ST: Would you say brands that produce and sell their goods more sustainably have become or will become more popular with buyers? If so, why?
Elizabeth Venz: Absolutely. Our customers are definitely aspiring to be more sustainable and suppliers offering these products in their ranges are more likely to be considered than those that do not. That said, “green washing” is unacceptable and customers are becoming more informed. The pressure is on manufacturers to have a genuine story that stands up to scrutiny.
For example, it is known that may bamboo textiles undergo a lot of chemical treatments. One can’t simply create another bamboo product and expect not to receive questions. That said, there are other creative ways to be sustainable and one of those is going for longer-lasting, re-usable premium quality products.
At JNI we are constantly trying to persuade our customers that gifting a copper water bottle or stainless steel coffee cup will have a much more memorable impact for a brand than a cheaper plastic item that will be discarded quicker and easily forgotten. If a client has the budget it is possible to convince them that sustainability and brand awareness go hand in hand.
ST: Can mass production be truly eco-friendly and, if so, how?
Elizabeth Venz: That very much depends on what the product is, the production process and the level of eco-friendliness seen as the goal. The line for that is being drawn in different places. What is clear is that most production and supply chains do need improvement and that’s obviously an ongoing process. What we focus on are the steps of improvement.
One very important part of that is the buying decision because each pound spent is a vote which sends a signal to the supply chain. By spending more on eco-friendly options we create a demand trend which will speed up the journey to overall eco-friendliness. We see our role as distributors to help our clients see their role in the overall process and make good choices.
ST: Plastics are cheap and highly versatile materials, which makes them ideal for use in numerous ways, including packaging. On the downside, plastic waste has been reaching endemic proportions worldwide. What can be done to retain the benefits of plastics without the massive waste their use can also entail?
Elizabeth Venz: Well, it’s not always simple to navigate as we recently saw with the McDonald’s “Strawgate” situation where they switched from plastic to recyclable paper straws but found the paper couldn’t be processed properly and needed to be put into general waste. Then there was also a huge outcry from customers to return to plastic despite the fact they are single-use.
Another aspect is that not all plastics are created equal as some contain toxic chemicals and others are bio-degradable or recyclable. It’s good to be educated as to these aspects of a product. One thing that many people can agree on is to eliminate the use of single-use plastics. As an industry we would do well to help our clients move away from cheap giveaways that often end up in the bin before the event is even over.
Without trying to sound too pious I think that in 10 years’ time we will look back on that behavior a bit like we do on smoking today. As a British society we seem addicted to consuming water from single-use bottles. Could we see a future where it is normal for brands to sponsor water fountains and hand out re-usable branded water bottles instead?
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