An asteroid-sized wake up call for a weedy Swagasaur
I’m a hoarder.
I have never thought of myself as someone with an unhealthy attachment to trivial consumer goods, but as it turns out—weed brings out the worst out in me.
Between brand sponsored conferences, cups, smoke outs, concerts, afterparties, and networking mixers, I have amassed a shocking amount of promotional products I never use and never intend to.
I came to this realization when, in an effort to Marie Kondo my shoebox apartment, I found the only thing being “sparked” were joints to overcome clutter-induced anxiety.
In my dresser, I have an entire drawer alone dedicated to branded t-shirts. Of course, I can’t open it unless, inch-by-inch, I press down on the bloat of cotton-blend to allow for some room to wiggle the trapped pile of loot free.
My “ignore drawer” (you know, that Pandora’s box in the kitchen containing all the chaos we aren't emotionally ready to face) is brimming with logo-clad stress balls, highlighters, pens, pins, stickers, lanyards, thumb drives, doob tubes, key chains, notebooks, grinders, sunglasses, tins, stash bags, rolling trays, and wooden joint tips. I have so many packs of rollies that I could probably rewrite all seven volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and then smoke it. Meander over to my cupboard and take your pick of six branded mugs, or, if you’re going for a run, one of four reusable water bottles. I’ve been sent flowers, food, flats of drinks, and most interestingly a Christmas wreath. My lighter teacup (a teacup containing my favourite lighters, obviously) is crowded by 12 disposable Bics, 11 of which are shrink wrapped in promotional plastic and the last is a laser engraved Zippo. Next to the teacup are a few branded lighter holders—in case, god forbid, I come across an unimpressive plain lighter. In my closet, I have a branded reusable tote bag vomiting up over a dozen other branded reusable tote bags. Next to that hangs a PR company’s umbrella, a licensed producer’s (LP) one-time-use plastic rain poncho, a nylon-polyester bomber jacket from another weed brand, and above those sit seven embroidered snapbacks sent to me from an assortment of companies.
Yes. I’m embarrassed.
When I looked a little closer at some of these items, my level of consumption became even more daunting. In a lifecycle assessment of common carrier bags used in U.K. supermarkets, cotton tote bags, predominantly produced in the cheap labour markets of China and India, ranked more than ten times that of any other material (plastic, paper, etc.) in global warming potential. Furthermore, the study noted that the “energy required to process cotton into cotton yarn is the main contributor to abiotic resource depletion, acidification, human toxicity, freshwater and marine ecotoxicity, and photochemical oxidation.”
Numerous environmental surveys and photographs have surfaced over the last several decades exposing plastic lighters as one of the most common items found clogging the gastrointestinal tracts of birds. Nearly 350 million pocket lighters are thrown out a year in the U.S. alone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and Bic, the world’s largest manufacturer of disposable lighters, continues to produce six million units a day.
As I shamefully inventory my glut of goods, I couldn't tell you where I got half of these items, or how many times I’ve used them, or if they made me think more favourably about the brands that hawked them. They’re frivolous items that crowd my already limited space—and I can’t be the only one who feels this way.
Now, this isn't a problem exclusive to the weed industry. In 2019, the Canadian promotional products industry drew in revenues of $2 billion, with an annual growth of 3.2 per cent in the last five years. This dramatically surpasses industry growth projections of an estimated $1.9 billion by 2022.
But considering it’s often the non-recyclable plastic packaging of legal products taking the heat in the cannabis industry for being environmentally tone-deaf, it seems we’re overlooking an equally insidious form of wasteful overkill mimicking a similar type of eco-disregard.
Interested in running a quick-and-dirty survey myself, I set some rules for my next industry gathering: the Lift & Co. Business Conference (Jan 10). The biannual industry trade show is solely dedicated to Canada’s legalizing cannabis industry and, for the purposes of this article, one of the biggest branded bulk goods bazaars around. According to Lift organizers, over 250 exhibitors fill the 160,000 square feet of the Vancouver show floor, and its Toronto event can see up to 20,000 attendees. It’s these types of events where I usually clean up.
As you enter the lobby of Vancouver’s convention centre, the sweet pheromones of free stuff permeates the room—or maybe that’s the collective heavy-breathing and sweat emanating from attendees hurriedly snatching up their lot of imported goods. Besides the general air of consumption, the message hits you immediately upon arrival, too. Organizers arm you, right at the door, with a free bag, reminding you that they are to be plumped with piles of cheap things. In you go with a paper-thin tote, out you go with a polyester treasure trove pregnant with freebies.
It is consumerism at its finest—a veritable Green Friday.
This year would be different. This year, I would only collect swag if it was either: a high quality product or ethically and sustainably made. I knew this would narrow my score, but was shocked with the breadth at which it did just that.
With this sleuthy survey in mind, I took the conference floor row-by-row, sussing out which booths were pushing gear. I counted 74. And by “counted” I mean if I passed a table giving out anything from single-serve cold pressed juices and sprinkle donuts to fridge magnets and frisbees—it was checked off in Lift’s printed conference guide. If a booth didn't appear in the guide, it was penned into the margins. No, I didn't run this by an ethical review board, and yes, I fully acknowledge the lack of professionalism by which I conducted this research. I will not be at all shocked if, upon publishing, someone pipes up with a: “you must have missed us because we were handing out hemp-based non-gender-specific vibrators branded using organic, vegan, gluten free ink and produced by fair-trade unionized Burmese monks.” I apologize ahead of time if I missed your valiant efforts. Furthermore, I acknowledge that most booth representatives aren't going to be informed as to the exact origins of the swag they’re handing out. This was made ever more evident by the number of blank stares and “umm’s” I got when I asked my one pertinent question: “Where did this come from?”
Of the 74 booths I ticked off in my book as offering some form of product, I asked 54 the aforementioned question. Twenty were left unposed as they were giving away some form of candy or pastry, which were probably purchased the day prior at Costco. Of the remaining, four of the 54 were able to tell me something moderately convincing and interesting about their product. Four.
Sundial Cannabis, an LP based in Alberta, was giving out candles and room sprays scented to align with elements of its products. For example, candles and sprays branded to represent their indica-dominant “Calm” series, which includes cultivars like Berry Bliss and Strawberry Twist, were made using sweet, fruity oils. Consumers could sniff the items and it would activate conversations with brand representatives about certain terpene profiles they could potentially be attracted to, then burn or spray the scent at home. Most importantly, the candles were sourced from a Calgary-based company called C & C Candle Company Inc and the sprays from the Apothecary in Inglewood, which uses aromatherapeutic essential oils, and produces organic, natural wellness goods in a zero waste environment. Another Sundial brand, B.C. Weed Co. was handing out handmade, all natural beeswax lip balm, also sourced from the Apothecary.
According to a 2019 global ad impressions survey, 57 per cent of Canadian consumers have a more favourable impression of the brand if the product was made in Canada, and just slightly higher (58 per cent) if it is environmentally friendly.
The same survey found that while tote bags, writing instruments, and calendars are the most likely branded items to be tossed—with an average consumer keeping a small office item for a maximum of nine months—higher quality items like outerwear, umbrellas, and t-shirts are significantly more likely to be kept. Pricier items like jackets and power banks are, on average, held onto by most consumers for more than a year.
Sundial had this category dialled in, too. It’s newly introduced recreational brand, Palmetto, had a line waiting to snag their assortment of t-shirts, socks, hats, and fanny packs that looked right off the shelves of a board shop.
So, just to recap: three of the four booths with compelling products were owned by the same parent company.
The fourth high quality handouts were hemp totes and 100 per cent cotton, screen printed Haynes t-shirt from the B.C.-based LP, Pure Sunfarms.
One licensed producer was actually handing out a product that was allegedly fair-trade, organic, and ethically sourced—but I can’t tell you who or what it was because it was a publicly traded company and no approved speakers were there to comment to the media. So, even though I want to give them a shout out, I can’t. Anyway, how great are lightbulbs, hey?
There was a company rumoured to be handing out hemp fibre shirts, but despite a few hot leads I never ended up finding out which one—ironically, brand recognition didn’t seem to stick in that case.
As my heart sank, and my arms remained relatively empty, I continued to a booth handing out Baja blue plastic wayfarers individually encased in crinkley plastic wrapping. Noticing I had bitten and picked up a pair, a booth rep wandered over and said, “They’d look a lot better on your face!”
Exhausted and a bit fed up, I quipped back: “They’d look better if they weren't plastic.”
By this point, I was grossed out by the seemingly endless bounds to the deluded indulgence and convinced everything in here was inevitably going to end up in the trash or pick-and-mix box at a secondhand store. I wasn't in the mood to be gentle with my criticism.
I left, feeling pretty proud of my small, but quality, lot of goods.
Curious to better understand what items resonated with consumers—I took to Twitter (where much of the cannabis industry talks) a few days post-conference.
From scales, slippers, multipurpose jewellery, and jackets—most of the commentary confirmed my earlier swag rule: consumers resonate with higher grade items. When smaller goods, like grinders or rolling trays were mentioned, it was with the caveat of more durable materials, like metal or wood. Interestingly, some gave tribute to educational gifts, like Pure Sunfarms’ terpene sample kit (a selection of essential oils to replicate some of their product lineup) they sent out to a handful of media, industry well-knowns, and influenzas. But not one comment mentioned cheap, disposable items like Bics, plastic doob tubes, lanyards, or pins. While this isn’t particularly shocking, it begs the question (beyond a low price tag) why are we still endorsing their consumption?
Considering we’re currently in the full throws of an ever-worsening environmental crisis, it seems an obviously inappropriate time to be carelessly tossing around plastic tokens of capitalism. And, while logo-sporting goods are undoubtedly an effective tool of brand recognition, with nine in 10 consumers recalling the brand they received the item from, it doesn't seem a convincing enough argument as the horrendous eight million metric tonnes of plastic currently polluting the ocean only grows larger each day.
As we rake other offenders over the coals for this ignorance, like fast fashion or fast food, why is it that we aren’t discussing canna-swag’s implication in heavily contributing to environmental pollution, the proliferation of toxic chemicals, and an unethical human impact?
There is a pervasive and unrelenting incentive between promotional item production companies to compete between one another to offer businesses cheaper, faster alternatives. So, inevitably, the bill falls on consumers to incite change.
Moreover, as 83 per cent of individuals are more likely to do business with a brand after receiving promotional products, it is nearly impossible to persuade bottomline-driven businesses to ditch old school engagement tactics. That is, unless we stop engaging with them.
This is called: consumer activism. It’s a method by which a cash-wielding individual, or group of individuals, can shape new consumer rules for brands by altering their shopping habits. By demanding ethically sourced, sustainability focused products—and eschewing goods and services that negatively impact the environment or labour force—it will inevitably push brands to find alternatives. And, in turn, prop up brands that already embody those values.
One alternative is to create experiences that encourage consumer activations. Most modern shoppers are incredibly social media savvy, and many effectively exist off of a dopamine-IV-drip fed by likes, shares, and mentions. A 2014 nationwide survey conducted by Eventbrite and Harris Group showed 72 per cent of millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996), North America’s largest generation by population, are more willing to spend on experiences than material goods. Accounting for an estimated $1.3 trillion (USD) in spending alone that same year, they’re dramatically changing marketing dynamics and consumer behaviours. Combining these two concepts (the proclivity for social media and the desire to engage) opens a multitude of doors for effective brand interactions on an experiential level—from art installations to Instagrammable backdrops. And there were noticeably more of those at Lift this year. High Street Cannabis partnered with Toronto artist Jordan Sook to create a full sized stoop on the corner of “High Street and Green Avenue” inspired by New York’s brownstones. Numerous attendees posed on the front steps to have their photo snapped and posted. Detonate Cannabis Agency, a supplier of trade show materials, packaging, labelling for Canada’s licensed producers, simulated a wall of dried flower with the words: “You’re Dope” scrawled in neon lights—another popular photo backdrop that popped up all over social media over the weekend. Some of Lift’s other experiential offerings included quick interactive engagements like yoga stretches, joint rolling tutorials, printed photographs, and massages.
Another alternative is to use the money budgeted for promotional products for a good cause. The aforementioned ad impressions survey found that 52 per cent of Canadian consumers prefer socially responsible goods, but some companies (in other industries) are taking that one step further. Instead of spending on bulk branded items for its annual conference last year, San Francisco-based tech company Okta donated nearly 14,000 school supplies to ten institutions in the San Francisco Unified School District. Taking a value “comparable to what they have spent on conference giveaways in previous years”, the company partnered with a local nonprofit to purchase and donate items ranging from iPad cases and HDMI cables, to furniture and whiteboards.
And it’s not as if the cannabis industry isn’t already aware of several suitable causes that could use the support. There is a desperate need, nationwide, for updated drug education, addiction services, supplies for medical compassion clubs, legal aid for those charged with minor drug offences and the push for cannabis amnesty, research grants, and more.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead of walking away with a bag full of items you either already have in several iterations or are surely to tire of in the coming months, your attendance contributes to relieving some of the industry's greatest afflictions?
A lot of people quip about legal cannabis being a “new industry”—capable of being built from the ground up. With that in mind, one of the pillars of any modern or evolving industry must be sustainability. For this change to take place, there needs to be a shift in attitude from both consumers and brands. Consumers need to stop accepting shoddy products from companies and instead demand creative ways to endorse or engage with them. And brands need to think outside of the box before falling back on the standard lot of import wholesalers failing to enforce necessary environmental policies.
As I toyed with this article, Inside the Jar’s co-founder and product director Chet Woodside brought up an interesting consideration: these promotional products are a barter in which you exchange your time for a material item. Companies use these goods to draw you into a conversation about their services and products, and when you go home it’s this item that will remind you of that interaction. So, if you’re a consumer, consider the method by which the item was produced, and the investment the brand put into the product, and ask yourself: was this worth my time? For the business owner, considering the same principals, ask yourself: is this item how we want our consumer to remember our brand?
Leaving Lift this year, I was proud of my active consideration of consumption. It didn’t quite make up for the thoughtlessness of my previous inhalation of useless items, but in inventorying my stash of swag, I gifted most of the grinders, papers, smell-proof bags, and other weedy goodies to friends who could make use of them. And, going forward, I’ll keep to my two rules of engagement.
But what the weed industry needs right now is a culling of crazed consumption, a purge of plastic, and a proverbial asteroid-sized wake up call for its Swagasaurs.