This Ultimate Guide to Eco Friendly Promotional Products provides our current understanding and thinking. It will be updated on an ongoing basis I’m sure!

Eco Friendly Promotional Products is a product category that has been available through the last decade. But with an explosion of consciousness & awareness demand is sky rocketing.

The difficulty is the complexity and confusion over making the right choices.

The Confusion starts here...!

Eco Friendly Promotional Products covers a multitude of interconnected factors, often in conflict, consideration needs to be given to:

  • Raw Materials
  • Production – energy, water usage
  • Country of Manufacture
  • Factory credentials
  • Transportation
  • Packaging
  • Longevity of product
  • Re-usability
  • Life Cycle Analysis – End of Life & Recycling

This quite literally is the conundrum that a marketer is facing. To meet a company’s CSR policy of buying eco friendly and ethically produced products.

Is the Bamboo pen, made in China, shipped to the UK better than a virgin plastic pen made in Germany or Spain? Obvious? No!

It is the same for Supermarkets and sectors across all business, there is a current rush to avoid plastic. Environmental think tank the Green Alliance has recently commented: “companies are on the verge of switching from plastics to materials with a greater environmental impact because of plastic pressure.”

Raw Materials

Working alongside one of our preferred suppliers they created the following list of raw materials found in the promotional products they sell. With those raw materials considered greenest at the top working its way down to the least.

Image shows a list of raw materials that make up promotional products in order of how green thought to be

The highlights for me were, Natural Bamboo versus Processed Bamboo, and while it was no surprise that plastics (Polypropylene and ABS) were below metals, paper and wood, obviously Bio Plastic propping up the list was a big surprise.

Processed Bamboo

I will write a separate blog post about the benefits of bamboo. In short it is the perfect eco friendly plant. It is fast growing, absorbs more CO2 than other trees/plants. It grows naturally pesticide free, and requires no irrigation and prevents soil erosion.

So as a raw material it is close to perfect.

However, there are very few products which are pure Natural bamboo. Products such as a Bamboo pen, a Bamboo cup are made from Bamboo fibres and processed with plasticizers. Effectively creating a plastic product that will conform to a mould thereby creating a pen or a cup.

So while the inputs are better than a raw plastic product, essentially these products are plastic. They will not compost or biodegrade as some assume. They will breakdown over a long period, just as virgin plastic eventually will. Either in landfill or they will be incinerated, unless they are recycled.

There is a further question in terms of footprint, is a processed bamboo product more or less energy efficient to manufacture? 

Bamboo absorbs a lot of CO2 in it’s growth, but how does the processing, manufacture in the Far East, transportation from China compare with an oil based virgin plastic product made in Europe?

Bio Plastic

This was a controversial one for me, in many sectors Bio or PLA is being pushed as a plastic solution. I find myself questioning the popularity of Bio Plastic. It is a material we have until now been promoting as an eco friendly solution and using ourselves for our own Printed Promotional Pens.

The problem with Bio Plastic or PLA, (polylactic acid) which is a vegetable-based plastic material commonly using sugar cane as the raw material is:

  • firstly this is farmland being used to create a plastic rather than feed humans or animals
  • the product is often marketed as being biodegradable in domestic compost conditions or being buried in the soil. The truth appears to be that PLA requires moisture and heat over 140F to begin to degrade and such compost conditions are very specific
  • No curbside collection facility is available for industrial compost
  • Lets say a pen or bottle reaches a waste sorting facility, what characteristics do these products show to say they are suitable for industrial composting should this option be available, they will be identified as plastic – landfill or incinerated.
  • Eco Friendly Promotional Products, branded merchandise, SWAG is by its nature over-printed with company logos using inks in order to create marketing materials. Do we want inks entering the food chain through industrial composting, i don’t think we do!
  • Bio Plastics are being promoted within the pen sector, if we ignore the printing inks above, how often will a pen be broken down to its component parts of ink refill + clip + spring (the non PLA plastic parts) and the PLA barrel so that only the PLA heads to compost? Not buying that one? me neither.

So having given raw material some consideration, let’s review the other interconnected factors.

Production

Here we just need to consider & be mindful of the production processes that take our raw materials and turn them into product, raw materials + process + energy + transportation will all create a carbon footprint.

I am a humble Promotional Product salesman, I am not a chemist, physicist, biologist, materials or energy expert.

But I think I probably lean on the side that a European made pen from virgin plastics originating in a sustainable, renewable powered factory probably has a far lower carbon & environmental footprint than some “eco” offered alternatives.

But perception is everything, and consumers are wanting to be seen as doing something, something different, which isn’t necessarily the right thing!

Country of Manufacture

Above I asked, ” Is the Bamboo pen, (you now know made from Processed Bamboo) made in China, shipped to the UK, better than a virgin plastic pen made in Germany or Spain?”

It’s a current conundrum and the assumption is Bamboo, but as both will end their lives as plastic waste, I think the eco credentials for those Pen factories in Spain (Bic) and Germany (Senator) are probably better than those made in China.

So many interconnected factors & not often aligned who thought buying Eco Friendly Promotional Products was going to be easy!

Transportation

From raw materials to transport of product to the UK, where it may be decorated, and then shipped on.

Unfortunately we don’t make pens in the UK (we do make pencils) but pens transported by road from Germany & Spain to the UK will have a lower Carbon footprint than those from China.

Is your eco friendly promotional product of interest available from a UK manufacturer? While pens are not an option you will be surprised how much UK made product is available, there are lots of drinkware options such as the Americano Takeaway Coffee Cups or the Sportsman Range of Bottles, UK product will be a later blog post.

Packaging

Packaging of finished promotional products is under the spot light, as in all sectors, Amazon makes us very aware of the stupidity of box sizes and overuse of packaging, this is a consideration on top of the eco friendly product itself.

One such quick fix is the use of adhesive paper packing tape rather than petroleum based plastic tapes that we are all probably guilty of using. Paper tapes are biodegradable, recyclable and repulpable.

One Packaging dilemma which is causing a headache is poly bags. To protect printed merchandise in transit items are often cellophane bagged in order to prevent them rubbing against themselves and subsequently scratching the printed message.

This is necessary but with plastic being perceived as the devil’s work alternative packaging methods are being sought as the product has to be protected.

The trouble is the alternatives might have better PR spin, but for example a paper bag (recycled or not) is not necessarily the overall ‘green’ solution. Think trees, energy to recycle, water usage, comparative weight in transportation and subsequent energy / CO2 use etc etc.

It isn’t a simple answer to say find me an alternative to a plastic bag, but I fully understand the irony of eco friendly promotional products being delivered in plastic!

The simple answer is I believe that such bags can be recycled. They are cheap, efficient, low energy consuming and quite possibly therefore green when compared to other alternatives. If we dispose of correctly with a recycling collection depot that accepts carrier bags and plastic film then maybe we actually have the perfect solution already.

Is this a Guide...?

Yes, products are coming, sorry!

But I think it is really important to understand the interconnected factors that need your consideration before we assume that bamboo (for example) = green & good.

Green-washing is most definitely a thing.

A gesture towards “being green” may suffice, cheap cotton shopper bags instead of poly carrier bags for appearances for example. Or a deeper thinking may be what is required / wanted.

The 5 Rs of Eco Friendly Promotional Products

Some say there are 3, when you start to research there is any number you want that fit your narrative!

I’m going with:

  • Re-think
  • Reduce
  • Re-Use
  • Re-fill
  • Recycle

Re-think:

We are as a global society being forced to rethink. The way we travel, the way we shop, the food we eat, the energy we use, the energy we buy, the clothes we buy, the way we recycle etc etc.

The way we run our businesses, run our operations, use our marketing materials is all under question.

Eco Friendly Promotional Products, branded merchandise, SWAG has the potential to make incredible impacts and support new thinking, but is equally capable of producing a lot of cheap plastic tat with limited thinking.

Incredible impacts and support new thinking? Just consider the impact of the Bag 4 Life and massive reduction of single use carrier bags. Consider the current impact of re-usable promotional water bottles & take-away coffee cups. This industry at its best, creating desirable, retail inspired, useful products that promote your message.

Reduce:

Less cheap tat, more higher quality, retail inspired, useful products that add value to your brand, to your customer’s life and to the planet.

Re-use:

Such high-quality items that your customers can reuse again and again is far more sustainable than recycling old products into new ones. A well-chosen product that can be reused is the most favourable when it comes to its sustainable credentials, these are the products we wish to promote to the CSR marketer.

Re-fill:

I’ve added re-fill as I want to introduce the idea of sending your clients re-fills for the printed promotional pens you give them, see below.

Re-cycle:

Current media chatter is promoting Reduce & Re-use in that order with recycling last, and for good reason, it encourages greater thought than “oh, it’s ok, this plastic widget can be recycled next week!”

Take such plastic recycling, the process of melting used plastics down to form new products releases harmful fumes into the environment and adversely affects air quality.

This process also produces carbon dioxide, so while we look to reduce waste and landfill we go and contribute to global warming instead!

To add to the problem, recycled plastics are invariably degraded by the process, a term referred to a ‘downcycling’.

In other words, recycled products are not suitable for the production of quality mouldings unless a significant amount of virgin polymer is added to this mix to restore some of its chemical characteristics.

What’s more, remelting recycled plastic products normally results in a totally unusable material that has to be incinerated or dumped in landfill & the challenge for waste plants is identifying & separating virgin plastics from recycled.

The Ultimate Guide to Eco Friendly Promotional Products!

Now that we have considered raw materials & other factors, & we know we want to buy useful products that have a longevity to them, let’s have a look at some of our ideas.

Hurrah, he’s got to the product bit!

I’m going to start with Four Product Categories – I will add more but it’s a starting point and we are more than happy to show you others outside of the narrative of this blog that will meet your specific brief.

  1. Pens
  2. Drinkware, water bottles & take-away cups
  3. Bags
  4. Clothing

Eco Friendly Pens

If we go in budget order for Ultimate Guide to Printed Eco-Friendly Printed Pens, then we would start at the fountain pen.

The Fountain Pen

The ultimate Pen 4 Life is the fountain pen, with refillable cartridge, the only waste is a glass pot of ink. While some schools are re-introducing this is sadly a bit niche for the merchandise sector but as a VIP gift there are lovely offerings from Cross, Parker, Waterman etc.

Parker Urban fountain pen

The Gift Pen

There is a wide range of pens then available in the £5.00 to £20.00 price point.

Metal ballpens or rollerballs, these pens are of such a high perceived value that they are unlikely to be thrown away and contribute to the waste problem, the user will always be inclined to order a refill from the stationery provider, WH Smiths on the high street, or Amazon.

These are not of course what you are thinking is the obvious Eco-Friendly printed promotional pen, but if your objective is to avoid pen waste then they should be. Re-use, Re-fill.

Promotional Gift Pens
Parker Jotter Stainless Steel Ballpen (PP-WH84), Sheaffer 100 Ballpen (PP-WI71), CROSS Coventry Ballpen (PP-YA13)

The lower cost pen

If we look at the Sub £1.00 budget we now will find the low cost, lower perceived value plastic pens and their new ‘Eco’ alternatives that we find ourselves discussing most in the eco-friendly pen category.

First off I would consider any of Dan’s recommendations when asked “if you can only sell 6 different pens, which would you choose?” His answers can be found here.

Again, not ‘Eco’ as such, but going back over the above messages, each of these pens is a nice quality pen for the budget of under £1.00 and all can be refilled.

Dan's Top 6 Printed Pens

Two Key Messages

The key two messages at this price point that we think are important:

  1. Refills are available
  2. Recycling is available Nation-wide through Terra Cycle, for any make of pen, for more information see here.

If you are a company providing pens to your clients and you are conscious of waste and perception then you can offer pen refills to your clients. Either steering them to a refill web site or alternatively encouraging customers to come back to you and asking for a refill.

Refills

Why not use refillplease@mycompany.co.uk as an email printed on the pen, wouldn’t it be great to know the individual wants to keep using your pen and makes contact? & by providing the refill you extend the effectiveness of your marketing materials.

Returns

Return, Replace, Recycle as an alternative solution, encourage your customers to return a used pen which you can either refill or recycle through Terracycle, and you can send the client a replacement pen

Eco-friendly Materials

I believe the jury is out as to the effectiveness of the alternative pen materials.

Recycled materials such as rPET where single use plastic water bottles have been recycled into pens is a good recycled option I think.

But for me the environmental benefits of creating plastic out of processed bamboo, Sugar Cane (PLA) or wheat are slightly unclear and I think it is important we understand what we are buying.

A Bamboo contour (other styles are available!) is a nice alternative to oil based plastic if we / the end user re-uses the pen, if it’s single use then it’s still a plastic pen that will be landfill or incinerated if someone does not use a service like Terracycle.

A Sugar Cane (PLA) pen is sold as a biodegradable pen. But I see no route to getting this product to a compost facility, no service where a pen is broken to its component parts, and I do not believe putting barrels with printed inks on them is a good idea to enter composting and subsequently the food chain.

Wheat plastic is a new entrant for 2020, the industry has gone mad for it! In the UK ‘wheat waste’, the stalk of the wheat plant is a valued commodity either for animal bedding or to be ploughed back into the fields as organic matter. Apparently in other countries it is considered a waste product, collecting it, transporting it and manufacturing it into plastic is apparently an environmental solution. I don’t know enough at this point to offer a judgement, but ultimately, end of life, this will still be plastic for landfill, incineration or hopefully recycling.

Perception wise however these ‘natural’ ingredients are easy to market as an eco-friendly solution, and the market place is filling up with them. 

Bic’s Media Clic Bio, Senator’s Bio Super Hit, or Skeye Bio ballpens are premium brands and cover different price points.

The Bamboo Contour is another (I feel better) alternative which as the Contour barrel shape has been the best selling pen of the past three years is probably a good choice! It’s a pen that I think lends itself to the encouragement of being refilled, and bamboo is the ultimately green plant.

As demand increases the product offerings is increasing exponentially, please contact the team for the latest materials, styles and shapes.

Recycled, PLA, Wheat, Bamboo

My favourite Eco-Friendly Pen!

Bic is a great company, the factory is environmentally friendly, all waste recycled, they use renewable energy to power the plant, and operate to ISO 14001 certification.

The Bic biro is obviously world famous and few write better.

The 4-in-1 provides 4 pens for the price of 1, I have replaced the refills to extend the life of the product as the Black & Blue run out before the red and the green. It’s my go to pen as the 4 colours make it so useful and when the mechanisms eventually break I will recycle with TerraCycle.

Eco Friendly Drinkware

Within drinkware there are two leading sub categories within the ‘Eco’ conversation at the moment:

  1. Alternatives to single use water bottles
  2. Alternatives to single use take-away coffee cup

Branded Water Bottles

Some say the branded water bottles are not necessarily ‘Eco’ in their own sense, just as many bags for life were not of an eco material. The ‘Eco’ category being the switch away from single use plastic.

However I would counter that these bottles are made from Stainless Steel, a fully recyclable material, so yes the raw materials are not eco, but it will certainly refll, reuse and at the end of life will recycle.

Now it has to be said that in comparison the raw material, energy, transportation etc of these products has far more impact on the environment initially than a single use plastic bottle.

These bottles will need to be used 50+ times (disclaimer, I haven’t found a researched figure to reference yet) to counter the single use plastic.

But the focus at the moment is less on whole life cycle analysis and all about plastic waste, which is making these a very popular product choice right now. But with that they need to be a good quality, they need to be desirable and they need to be used regularly in order that they serve their purpose and do good.

The below bottles are the number 1 shape that people just love, just as the Contour pen grabbed people’s preference as the pen of choice, these bottles are the shape that everyone seems to want to use.

From different sources we can supply 12 different colours of the Mood Bottle. Alternatively from a UK decorator we can supply from just 90 pieces – pantone matched EeVo-Therm bottles in satin, gloss or metallic finishes, and full colour printed from 30 pieces.

These are double walled (12 hours hot / 24 hours Cold) food grade Stainless Steel bottles, a metal that of course is durable, re-useable and at end of life recyclable.

Mood Bottle Range

Alternatives to single use Coffee Cups

Two leading alternatives to the single use take-away coffee cups that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall so publicly called out as causing huge amounts of waste.

The Americano

UK made, available in 3 different sizes, with huge colour choices, screen-print or full colour decoration options we think this is a great product. It is plastic itself although recycled material as it becomes available is being added, and it is recyclable, but we feel this is a great Mug 4 Life just as the Bag 4 Life reduced carrier bag usage.

Americano Thermal Mug Range

Tulip Thermal Tumbler

Offering a non-plastic alternative the Tulip Thermal Tumbler is a food grade stainless steel option, 330ml capacity which is the same as a Cambridge printed ceramic mug. Pantone matched from 90 pieces, Full Colour (and infusion full wrap prints as below) from 30 pieces.

The Tulip tumbler has a clear spill-proof lid for use on the go. There are many many different styles of drinkware available, these are just two that are popular right now, do contact the team for more ideas, images, samples and/or our catalogue for inspiration.

Tulip Thermal Tumbler

Eco Friendly Bags

The Bag 4 Life has been around for a long time now and the need for anymore cotton shoppers must be questioned. The effectiveness of giving another cotton shopper as a promotional item, this is not going to be new or useful to the receiver and it’s life span & usage now limited.

But within this product category three highlights, there are many many alternatives, many materials, shapes & sizes and the team will be happy to help you find the perfect solution.

But for the purpose of this blog, two initial ideas:-

Newchurch rPET Tote Bag

If a tote bag is something that you need to provide exhibition materials or other items conveniently to your audience then the Newchurch has a good story.

This bag is a recycled 6.5oz Cotton Tote Shopper. The fabric used to manufacture this bag is 70% recycled cotton from off cuts and waste from a sheet manufacturer blended with 30% rPET polyester which is recycled fabric from plastic bottles, giving it extra structure.

It’s a really strong, tough bag as a result.

The supplier of these bags is also donating to plasticoceans.uk who are focused on trying to erradicate plastic waste from the oceans and with the recycling of water bottles into the Newchurch it obviously makes a nice fit.

Newchurch rPET Tote Bag

The Boxley foldup backpack

The Boxley is a foldup backpack, made from 190T ripstop polyester, yes its polyester which is not an ‘eco’ product but it folds down into a pocket and opens up into a really strong backpack that will carry dinner and a bottle of wine home from the supermarket!

As such it makes for a really useful Bag4Life alternative, how often are these left in the boot of the car and a bit too bulky to carry on, but the Boxley fits in a coat pocket or a handbag and as such has become a firm favourite of the Sussex Promo team.

Boxly Foldup Backpack

Eco Friendly Clothing

Clothing is a huge topic, just to start cotton is a massive consumer of water, before farming, manufacturer, transport is taken into consideration.

Clothing is typically also farmed & manufactured in some of the poorest parts of the world.

As such it is important for those companies introducing CSR policies to ensure their clothing requirements come from fair, sustainable and eco-friendly sources.

The Neutral® brand

We believe the clothing brand Neutral® is the best fit for such companies.

Neutral® is premium quality apparel for men, women, kids and babies, manufactured and certified in accordance with the highest social, ethical and environmental standards in the world.

Defined and monitored by external organisations, the certificates guarantee that every Neutral® product is made with true regard for people and planet, from cotton field to final product.

Image shows the Neutral brand of clothing label and eco credentials

If you would like to know more about the clothing brand Neutral® then please contact the team, or review Neutral’s website first for an overview.

We can source all of the Neutral range of clothing and have it decorated & finished as is required by your brand.

This blog is first written in January 2020, it will be edited as new product ideas are released & new thinking is shared. The opinions are my own based on readings, industry dialogue and my own thinking of the Promotional Product marketplace. Comments below are welcome or you can contact me directly. For customers we hope this is helpful, for suppliers I would welcome your thoughts, ideas and inputs.

Thank you.

Andrew (01273 493618)