Student Org Swag: Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

It goes by many different terms, “Swag,” “Merch,” and “Promos” to name a few, but no matter what you might call it, promotional material given out by organizations across the world, or swag as I will call it in this blog post, has established itself into a global industry. Swag is one of the most popular methods of showing our identities, which is especially true on a college campus. It helps us identify with groups we’re proud to be affiliated with and creates a sense of belonging and community across college and professional campuses. These freebies have become an essential part of any organization’s culture. The global swag industry already boasts a revenue of almost 64 billion dollars, a significant proportion of which is apparel. However, behind the allure of community, swag is contributing to a much larger problem. 

A growing problem in the global fashion industry, the ever-reducing shelf life of clothes, is a problem that is especially apparent in the swag industry. Made from plastics or other cheap materials, most swag is kept for merely five months before it finds its way into landfills. 

While swag poses a significant challenge for the university with its ambitious sustainability goals, it also poses a serious question to all students and student organizations who are committed to sustainability: How can we recruit new members and show our group pride and camaraderie without merchandise that adversely impacts the planet? With a commitment to sustainability comes an obligation to find ways of creating community and belonging without significantly adding to emissions and the landfill. Here are some essential strategies for thinking differently when it comes to swag.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Purchasing Swag

Before planning any giveaways or merchandise orders, here are some essential questions we need to learn to ask ourselves. Is a giveaway appropriate, and what is its purpose? If the intended audience is the general public, are there strategies that could reach the same audience and meet the intended purpose without requiring purchases that may end up being thrown away or going unused? Perishable items like food do a great job of attracting people to tabling events as opposed to clothes. Also, the chance to win one nicer item is another way to reduce the amount of things you are purchasing while still motivating interaction with your table. 

The University of Massachusetts has come up with an extremely helpful visual when it comes to planning merchandise and giveaways. Similar to how we might think of the elementary school adage “Reduce, Reuse, then Recycle” for reducing our individual waste from consumption, this visual advocates for a hierarchical approach to how we might think about purchasing swag. First, can we avoid it entirely? Next, if we do need an item, can we upcycle or repurpose something we already have? Lastly, if we do need to buy something, can we choose an item that is useful and ethically produced before we consider items just for the sheer purpose of having a giveaway?

A hierarchy for purchasing swag that begins with "avoid it" and then "upcycle/reuse" then if you must buy new prioritizing usefulness and ethically produced items.
A Hierarchical Ethical Guide to Swag from the University of Massachusetts

One Popular Alternative Strategy: Screen Printing

If building community and engagement is one of your goals in providing swag, there are ways to create apparel while lowering its environmental cost. An idea that’s rapidly gaining popularity among students here at the University of Michigan is screen printing. Screen printing is a method of creating swag yourself by crafting a design, often a logo, on a plastic screen and inking it to print designs on thrifted t-shirts. This is not only a way of cutting down on carbon emissions and water use associated with creating apparel, but also a way to create an experience for your organization’s members in creating merchandise together. 

Two students carefully lift and inked screen off of a piece of merch.
Two people screen printing at a campus event.

While screen printing is a specific example that works for certain situations, it’s an idea of how thinking differently not only helps you reduce your environmental impact, but also can help your swag stand out in a sea of cheaply printed t-shirts. Reusable items like tote bags, water bottles, mugs, and stickers are excellent alternatives to conventional t-shirts. 

Ultimately, we have an opportunity as students of the University of Michigan to live up to our slogan of “leaders and best” and lead the way in sustainability with our decisions. We’re doing more than just reducing emissions associated with swag, we’re choosing a lifestyle through our branding.

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