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“There’s no such thing as a bit sustainable”

Striving towards a more environmentallyfriendly, more ethical and healthy way of life and production methods has become a mega trend, which characterises both the society and the economy and which has also been long since omnipresent in the promotional products industry. This is why we are launching a series on theme of sustainability in the present issue of eppi magazine. An introduction to a complex theme involving many questions, which there are no easy answers to.

wn341_nach3They are cheap and made of plastic. They are mostly imported and nobody really knows where they exactly come from. They are distributed among the people en masse and are frequently thrown away immediately afterwards: Such clichés and the likes were associated with promotional products for a long time. That is why up until recently many people were of the opinion that the promotional products industry and sustainability go together like the defence industry and pacifism. “Ten years ago the themes ‘promotional products’ and ‘sustainability’ were indeed a contradiction in terms. Fellow competitors still maintain today in conversation: ‘You and I won’t change the world anymore.‘ Whereby, a lot has already happened,” according to Manfred Janek, sustainability representative of kw open. The Austrian promotional products agency specialises in sustainable promotional products – and in the meantime, there are quite a lot of them on the market, as one notices when one looks round at promotional products trade shows. Sustainability has been one of the trend themes in the industry for around a decade – because for society and the economy it is a mega trend.

Consumers as the driving force

Ecological aspects and sustainability don’t just occupy fringe groups anymore, but have long since become a mainstream issue. The “lohas” (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) of the millennium decade are not a homogeneous target group, but people of extremely variable demographic backgrounds with just one common feature: critical consumption. And this throughout almost all spheres of life: For example, every discounter offers organic products in the meantime. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, the annual turnover made with organic food increased from 18 up to 72 billion US dollars worldwide between the years 2000 and 2013. Labels of organic and fair-trade clothes are booming – with fashion that is not only “eco”, but also hip. Upcycled furniture is found in lowenergy buildings equipped with pellet heating, hybrid cars and e-bikes are powered by green electricity, urban gardening and sustainable tourism reflect the new relationship towards nature. Trends that the economy cannot afford to ignore and that it isn’t ignoring either. Efforts and strategies, which improve one’s own ecological balance, optimise the supply chain ethically and ecologically and quite simply make the company fit for a future where there is no longer any room for overexploitation, are found in medium-sized family businesses as well as in listed blue-chip companies. Because in addition to the immediate call for action, sustainability is becoming an increasingly more significant competitive factor. In the course of a survey carried out by the American PR and marketing agency Cone Communications that was recently published, 91% of the 10,000 consumers interviewed worldwide said that they take it for granted that a company has a sustainability strategy. 72% were of the opinion that they could influence ethical and ecological factors with their purchasing decisions and 80% would buy an unknown brand in favour of sustainability. “Sustainability strategies will play an elementary role in product marketing in future,” assessed Frank Groß, CEO of the German writing instrument producer, Schneider Schreibgeräte. “Due to the constantly growing environmental problems and the related sensitization of the people worldwide particularly for social themes, sustainability will be considered to be equally as important as the product quality when it comes down to assessing the offer and will thus also massively influence the competitiveness of companies. The same applies for brand management. Only brands that have a coherent sustainability strategy will be able to win over or maintain the trust of the consumers in the future.“

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Critical consumption: More and more consumers are taking a closer look when shopping
and their preference lies on organic and fair trade products.

Paradigm shift

A particularly sensitive area: haptic advertising. Because many recipients judge promotional products just as critically as a product that they have purchased in a retail outlet. And particularly for companies that otherwise go to great lengths to implement and communicate sustainability, cheaply produced and thus ethically dubious promotional products can be real image killers. This is why in the meantime the users choose their promotional products very carefully. “A generation and paradigm shift is taking place at managerial level,” stated Janek. “The Lohas hold executive positions in the meantime, some of them have children and are very well informed.“ “Some universities or companies involved with children – for example baby food manufacturers – only implement sustainable products now,” reported Rolf Janka, Marketing and Sales Director of the German promotional products agency Hagemann. “Finance service providers also deal with this theme very conscientiously.“

Rapid adaptation

wn341_nach8The promotional products industry reacted to these developments in the second half of the millennium decade initially with a rapid adaptation of so-called “green products”. But, of course, the trend also attracts freeloaders. Many products that are labelled as “sustainable” turn out to be marketing capers on closer inspection. “A few years ago we carried out comprehensive research into sustainable promotional products, wrote to around 50 suppliers and received in some cases absurd offers. Only three or four suppliers really presented us with serious products,” said Janka. “In the meantime, however, there is a more down-to-earth approach, we have a pool of reliable suppliers.“ “Unfortunately, there are still suppliers on the market, who in some cases market or relabel standard stock and try to flog it off under the environmentally-friendly label. It even goes as far as woven or non-woven PP bags being sold as ‘sustainable’ products. On the other hand, the number of credible offers is also on the increase,” said Evan Lewis, founder and CEO of Eco Promo (Everything Environmental Ltd), a specialist for products made of environmentally-friendly and recycled materials, eco-friendly production and fair trade. Janek confirmed: “The discussion and also the offer on the market is becoming more and more serious. One goes into greater detail and con artists are identified more quickly.“

Professionalism on the market

The discussion about “greener” promotional products led to new product trends, including upcycling products, for example: Lamps from old traffic lights.

The discussion about “greener” promotional products led to new product trends, including upcycling products, for example: Lamps from old traffic lights.

Those who want to take sustainability seriously have to become more professional. For example, the Dutch importer Xindao presented a comprehensive sustainability programme called “Vision 2020” just under two years ago. Our industry needs a system change,” explained, CEO, Albert van der Veen. “We have to fundamentally change the way we handle resources and our modus operandi – because sustainability is an issue that concerns everyone, but also because the market is demanding it with increased vehemence.” In addition to production processes, the supply chain and the logistics, Xindao’s agenda also encompasses the company’s line-up – for example Xindao wants to completely do away with products made of PVC by the year 2020 and instead only manufacture products from recycled, bio-degradable, eco-friendly or at least recyclable or reusable materials. “Vision 2020 is a road map and a constant process,” explained van der Veen. “We cannot guarantee that we will implement all of the goals in the planned space of time. It is important to get started – low hanging fruit first.” This is why a credible sustainability policy also involves not getting carried away: It is not our aim at all to position ourselves on the market as being 100% sustainable – but we too must remain competitive and sell products. However, we can change a lot, even in the low-budget sector – i.e. do away with unnecessary poly bags, change packaging material, print the instructions of use on the packaging or redesign the packaging in such a way that it can be transported more efficiently.” Janek is of a similar opinion: “There are always going to be international procurers, not least because there is no industry left in Europe for many product groups. It is not possible to go from 0 to 100 percent. One has to keep a close eye on meaningfulness and the principle of keeping everything in proportion, instead of ‘everything organic’, sometimes just ‘one step better’.“

Away from the disposable mentality

This also includes reconsidering the lifecycle of products with a view to their implementation: “As long as our industry continues to offer cheap, pointless products that don’t have a function apart from conveying a message, the promotional products sector will never be considered sustainable,” commented Lewis. “Of course, the aim is to convince the users. Because the budgets are tight and promotional products are often ordered at the last minute, many marketeers opt for ‘disposable products’ – it is a shame because companies could stand out from the masses if they implemented intelligent products.“ “A major rethink is required – moving away from give-aways, towards ‘gifts’. It is better to give away less items and implement better products instead,” in the opinion of van der Veen. “When all is said and done, cheap products are a waste of money. People no longer accept everything, they don’t want rubbish anymore – high-quality, functional and durable promotional products are thus more sustainable when taking the budget into account.“ That is why the industry has to evaluate its own offer – and advise the users, explain things to them, encourage and convince them. If an explanation is at all necessary: “There is a higher demand for sustainable products among the users than one imagines,” stated van der Veen. “The only problem is that many distributors don’t offer them consistently enough.”

Sustainable – what does that mean?

This might be due to the fact that the theme demands in some cases immense know-how. “One has to inform oneself about the subject and that involves a considerable amount of research work,” stated Janek, who also offers seminars on the theme of sustainability. “Some of our fellow distributors are frightened they might make a fool of themselves, because their customer could know more about the subject than they do. A further problem is that there is no binding or universal answer to the question as to what a sustainable product actually is.“ The promotional products agency Hagemann posed precisely this question last year in the scope of a survey carried out on 848 customers by the market research institute Agemas – the result brought extremely different answers ranging from “made out of regrowing raw materials”, “recycling materials”, “recyclable products” or products with “a long lifecycle”.  Janek: “Many users reduce the theme of sustainability down to buzzwords – following the motto: ‘The main thing is that organic is printed on it’. Whereby, products praised as ‘sustainable’ can also have a negative eco-balance or might have been manufactured under dubious conditions.” Everybody talks about “sustainability” – whereby it is difficult to define what the term actually means (see also box on pg. 40). Especially since in the macro-social discourse the term has – to put it mildly – turned into an empty phrase. “Sustainability has turned into a catch all phrase, which frequently has very little to do with the original meaning of the term,” stated Lewis. “Originally, sustainability means taking an approach that secures that a system can maintain itself, in other words one only takes out of it asmuch as it can regenerate itself. The problem is that the individual aspects of sustainability are often taken in isolation.”

It’s not just products

Only those, who take an holistic approach, really act in a sustainable manner – which is actually a truism. “The product itself is only the piece of evidence,” stated Groß. “A real sustainability strategy encompasses all processes and work flows in the company, all resources, the alignment of the line-up and the entire supply chain. Our efforts don’t just focus on the environment, but on all the people, who work in our plants or who are indirectly involved in the creation of our products, as well as the living conditions in the region. Finally, the economic soundness of the company also plays a role.“ For an efficient internal environmental management and clear communications to the outside, Schneider Schreibgeräte has been implementing the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) since 1998, which continually monitors improvement processes of the environmental performances within the company. “In the meantime, we think beyond our own production sites. The corporate carbon footprint and the product carbon footprints are also taken into consideration when procuring the raw materials and the necessary transport thereof,” explained Groß. Efforts that are below the line more important than a product seal. Janek: “There are many companies that may not communicate the sustainable characteristics of their products, but which indeed display an excellent sustainability balance in terms of their corporate philosophy and alignment – because they produce in Europe, have effective and ecologically exemplary production processes and assert themselves for their employees or regional interests.”

The supply chain problem

The product is only the piece of evidence: A consistent sustainability strategy encompasses all resources and processes, including also the logistics chain and energy balance.

The product is only the piece of evidence: A consistent sustainability strategy encompasses all resources and processes, including also the logistics chain and energy balance.

Companies that produce in Europe are subject to the local legal framework conditions and can more or less guarantee that their products are produced under fair and controlled conditions. This is why there is increasing demand among the users for products that are manufactured in Europe. “In the meantime many customers insist on ‘Made in EU’,” reported Janek and Groß confirmed too: “’Made in Germany’ counts as a quality seal and is present in almost all customer dialogues.“ Of course, this only works to a limited extent. In the Far East, however, where the lion’s share of the market volume is produced, there is high backlog demand in terms of the CSR balance – which is generally understood to be part of the sustainability balance. Initiatives such as the BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) or Sedex (Supplier Ethical Data Exchange) strive to achieve an improvement in the working conditions, however, membership in these organisations doesn’t give the manufacturers a guarantee, nor do audits by independent companies or test certificates – according to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which collapsed in April 2013 leading to the deaths of 1,127 people, had undergone a social audit by the TÜV Rhineland on behalf of the BSCI a few months previously. “Many users are satisfied if they are presented with a seal – although it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the guidelines are actually observed,” commented van der Veen. “Because, first of all, certifications can be bought and secondly 100% monitoring is not possible, at least not yet. Our industry is very diverse and deals with so many different kinds of products that it is not easy at all to be compliant. But also big multinationals are not always that well-organized concerning compliancy.“ Because particularly specialists with a manageably- sized product portfolio have in some cases only got a handful of suppliers, to whom they can maintain close contacts relatively simply. Personal influence and control is frequently more effective and reliable than outsourcing – but unfortunately, it is less credible in the eyes of many users and for this reason it is also among others difficult for the suppliers to communicate.

The limits of the commitment

Complicated correlations are difficult to market. “The message ‘this product is made out of 35 recycled PET bottles’ works, however on the other hand it is difficult to convey a highly-complicated certification concept,” noted Janek. “In addition to this: Image comes first. Especially in the case of major groups, it is primarily about what is visible to the outside. They have big-scale sustainability strategies, which are seldom planned or executed down to the last link in the chain.“ Because here the Controlling and Purchasing departments all too often have the last say in the matter. Reason number one for a decision against ecological promotional products was for 68% respondents in the Hagemann survey the price. “Sustainability is great, but it is not allowed to cost anything,” summed up Janka. “Sustainable items are only implemented wide-scale if they are comparable in price.“

There is increased awareness for fair trade and ethically correct production, at the same time there is a high backlog regarding the CSR balance in the production countries.

There is increased awareness for fair trade and ethically correct production, at the same time there is a high backlog regarding the CSR balance in the production countries.

Sustainability as an obligation

“We are quite simply a price-driven industry and the development level of the different markets varies greatly,” said van der Veen. “It is important that we start to do something. But nobody can afford to do it on their own.” Hence, many companies feel that it is down to the legislation to enforce environmental protection and CSR regulations across the board. Van der Veen believes “that the laws and regulations will become rigorous sooner or later – and we should be prepared for this. Incidentally, this also applies for China: The environmental laws there are already becoming stricter and one mustn’t forget: If the Chinese Government demands change, it is enforced very quickly.” Groß added: “It is going to become more difficult to define the legal framework conditions in the sustainability sector compared to the product safety guidelines. But I assume that the lawmakers will react here too. The consumers, authorities and companies are sensitised and social themes will be picked up on sooner or later.“ When this time has come, the themes CSR and compliance will finally merge – and sustainability will no longer be an optional theme within the industry, but instead an obligation. “Those, who don’t offer any sustainable alternatives at all, will run into problems sooner or later,” Lewis is convinced and Janka added: “We distributors will require sources in the future that allow us to cover complete full-service programmes accordingly.“ Sustainability is not a label, but rather a principle of actions. “There is no such thing as a little bit sustainable,” Janek said summing it up in a nutshell. It quite literally comes down to the whole process – a system that has to be able to renew and regenerate itself in order to preserve itself. A vast theme with many questions and answers, many problems, but also many solutions. One thing is clear: One cannot do justice to the complexity of the theme with generalisations and simple guidelines for action. The sustainability principle demands especially in individual cases that the parties involved take a closer look and observe the fine details. This is precisely what we want to do in the following parts of our new series, in order to present small, but good approaches, which contribute towards the industry becoming more sustainable. And there really are plenty of them.

Photos: gabarage upcycling design (1); obs/TransFair e.V./Miriam Ersch (2); OTS.Bild/Nestlé Nespresso SA (1); Thinkstock (2)

[tagline_box backgroundcolor=”white” shadow=”no” highlightposition=”top” content_alignment=”left” class=”content_boxes_border” id=””] The term sustainability

The word “sustainability” originates from the forestry sector: In 1662, John Evelyn argued that the “sowing and planting of trees had to be regarded as a national duty of every landowner, in order to stop the destructive over-exploitation of natural resources”. In the 20th Century, the term was extended further. In the Brundtland report of the United Nations published in 1987, it was stated that “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Based on this definition a three-pillar model arose, which defines the ecological, economic and social sustainability as three dimensions of a sustainable development.
Even though scientists have not been able to agree on a universal definition of sustainability to-date, one thing is however certain: All elements of sustainability are correlated with each other.

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2016-12-09T12:52:20+00:00 August 31st, 2015|