Finding swag and promotional items to market your business while ensuring that swag is created in a way that’s friendly to the environment, workers and supply chain is challenging. Greenwashing is everywhere and the term eco-friendly has no set guidelines or regulatory oversight.
But one company is trying to change all that.
Tara Milburn founded Ethical Swag with a simple mission: make it easy for companies to purchase sustainable, ethical swag items based on their budget and promotional needs. Ultimately, she wanted to harness the power of business to create impact.
But what seemed like a simple concept, was much harder in practice. Everywhere she looked and everyone she asked to define “ethical” had a different definition. Before Milburn began growing her company, an essential element had to fall into place: clear criteria for ensuring that every product truly was ethical.
By starting with a clear foundation, Milburn was able to become a certified B corporation in 2020, recognizing the immense effort she and her team put into focusing first on people, planet and profit.
Defining Ethical in Ethical Swag
The hardest part of connecting businesses to ethical swag opportunities wasn’t in finding vendors and manufacturers or even reviewing their processes to check for greenwashing. Milburn’s greatest challenge came from spending weeks in her office defining what ethical really meant. The task was so large and important to her that it was all-consuming, to the point where her friends and family got a little worried she might never emerge from her office.
But she did emerge and with that time researching and strategizing, Milburn landed on 3 criteria.
- Transparency with no judgment and the mantra: “We will inspire not depress people into action.” No matter what industry a company is in or where they are at in their sustainability practices, Milburn and her team would welcome them and help them find the best products based on their promotional needs.
- When reviewing potential vendors to partner with, her team would review 5 pillars: environmental impact, social compliance, product quality, product safety, supply chain security.
- The shareholder value is not the only measure of success. If Ethical Swag were to truly succeed, it had to be because it was impacting people and the planet just as much as it was generating profits to pay her team a livable wage with fair working conditions like she challenged her vendors to do.
The business wasn’t just about ensuring swag manufacturers weren’t greenwashing (which sadly is far too common in the industry), but was about walking the talk to build a company committed to making the same impact.
Making it Simple for Companies Seeking Swag
The first of the three criteria of offering transparency without judgment was so essential to Milburn. When it comes to promotional swag, everyone has a budget and goals for connecting with their customers.
It had to be simple.
She created a rating system of good, better, best using emojis to offer these insights at a glance. But along with the good, better, best rating system comes additional emojis that highlight products from women-owned businesses, certified B corps, environmental causes, and more.
To show how the simple rating system works, Milburn demonstrated three notebooks, all that met the criteria for being ethical swag, but to varying degrees.
A notebook that falls into the good category has passed the stringent vetting process for the five pillars of environmental impact, social compliance, product quality, product safety, supply chain security. More than 100 different distributors might be selling that same notebook, but they might not be able to tell the notebook’s story about where it came from, how it was made, etc. This distributor focuses less on being able to tell you price ranges for a notebook and more about its origins.
A notebook in this category is organic, recycled or biodegradable. It has undergone third-party audits to ensure its authenticity of caring for the planet, while also meeting the criteria for the other four pillars.
An example of a notebook that meets the best criteria is one made in Italy from apple waste. The company that makes it offers fair wages to its employees. And while the product is still traveling a great distance for the supply chain, the company’s commitment to people, planet and profit is strong enough that it meets the best criteria.
What Being a Certified B Corp Means for Ethical Swag
Becoming a Certified B Corp is exceptionally difficult and something Milburn says isn’t for everyone. But she insisted on earning the certification because she had to make it simple for her customers.
At a glance, companies seeking swag can see that she and her team have put time and effort into the work they do. It proves they are mission-driven and it has third-party criteria and audits to prove that commitment.
The certification tells people in a clear and easy-to-understand manner what they get when they work with Ethical Swag.
Pairing Brands with Products that Consumers Will Love
Milburn isn’t just great at vetting companies based on the five pillars. She also has incredible marketing skills to make connections between brands and the swag they hand out.
She regularly urges companies to think outside the products they’ve seen others handing out at tradeshows and conferences and focus on ethical, sustainable products that also have clear connections to their brand.
So what does Ethical Swag hand out for their personal swag? Socks that encourage customers to “think about their footprint” by choosing ethical swag. The swag helps people make connections between the Ethical Swagbrand and its mission. And that’s exactly what Milburn encourages other businesses to try.
To get people thinking differently about their swag items, Milburn shared several products that stand out while also meeting the five pillars.
This isn’t just a great water bottle (which rest assured, Milburn’s team has tested and found it performs great), it also has a neat feature that allows users to enter a Give Code in to see the water projects that the manufacturer donates 3% of all profits to.
Explore using the GPS to see exactly how your support of the company is making a difference for those dealing with freshwater insecurity.
The water bottle is in the best category as well as being from a Certified B Corp that supports environmental causes.
The scarves are another example of a product that meets the best criteria. It’s made from recycled polyester chiffon from plastic bottles and provides brands the opportunity to fully customize the design to match their branding.
The company employs skilled resettled refugees to offer them dignified employment with flexible work hours. But the workers also get an education, transportation reimbursement and full healthcare benefits. Plus, the product is made entirely in the US.
Remember those socks Ethical Swag uses in their own promotions? They have awesome perks too. When you buy a pair of these socks, the manufacturer will also donate a pair to the homeless in the community where the purchaser chooses. That means that your sock purchase can help those in need around you.
This lip balm comes from a Certified B Corp and is manufactured in the USA. The company is the largest purchaser of organic beeswax globally. The product is also made from 95 percent organic materials.
As you get further into your journey of ensuring the promotional products you purchase are ethical and sustainable, Milburn has further solutions, such as recycled or biodegradable mailers and stickers with recyclable backing, which is rare to find.
No matter where you’re at in your journey, the team at Ethical Swag will help you find products that meet your needs.
Learn more about the company and hear Milburn’s passion for her mission from the Trible Bottom Line Podcast episode: Ethical Swag Improves Your ESG Performance.
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