Sustainability is the order of the day – also when implementing haptic advertising. But can giveaways from China be sustainable? And is everything really “green” inside, just because the outside packaging claims it is “green”? Manfred Janek, Sustainability Officer at the promotional products agency, KW Open, which specialises in ecology, about fancy terms, the bombardment with cheap items and the eco-offensive from the Far East.
Mr. Janek, what are the tasks of a Sustainability Officer at a promotional products agency?
Manfred Janek: As the Sustainability Officer it is my aim to offer promoting companies a wide spectrum of sustainable solutions. Therefore scouting for good and ecological products and services is an important part of my area of responsibility. In the meantime, we have earned ourselves a certain reputation so that manufacturers often already contact us in the early stages of a product launch. Furthermore, I am a member of several committees and forums in order to keep my level of know-how up-to-date. I pass the knowledge I gain in the process on to our employees and inform our customers in the scope of presentations and lectures. Beyond this we also offer sustainability training to all people interested in promotional products, even to fellow competitors.
Doesn’t that deprive you of your USP?
Manfred Janek: We ascertained at an early stage that it is of no use if we are stood there nice and tidy, but only have a very small market. The more promotional products agencies who are knowledgeable about this theme and are able to advise their customers accordingly, the greater the interest in sustainable products will become. Behind this is the vision of wanting to change the system and anchor the theme more firmly in the promotional products sector than at present. The training programme aims among other things to ensure that the participants are subsequently in the position to recognise the industry’s worst environmental polluters and be able to offer alternatives, know more about materials such as textile fibres, plastics, wood or metal, understand recycling processes, interpret the most important certifications and audits as well as recognise and communicate the use of sustainable promotional products.
What does marketing gain if more attention is paid to sustainability when implementing haptic advertising?
Manfred Janek: Haptic advertising aims to bring joy. But one mustn’t forget that the behaviour of the consumers has changed. They act much more consciously and quickly become annoyed if they are bombarded with cheap disposable items. In such a case, the desired advertising impact quickly has the opposite effect, because the target group is very sensitive regarding the theme of avoiding waste. Today’s CRM systems enable haptic advertising to be accurately implemented instead of distributing promotional products in a nonselective manner. Companies should take this to heart and also pay attention to the reusability of the products. On the other hand, haptic advertising can support a sustainable image very effectively in a non-verbal, yet tangible way. Promotional products may indeed be able to make a positive contribution to a sustainability strategy, but they can’t replace them. An overall concept is necessary, a consistency – from the internal behaviour via the communication, product development, production and service processes through to the responsibility for what happens in the post-consumer phase.
You say the consumer’s attitude towards the theme sustainability has changed. Does this apply to the same extent for the promotional products market?
Manfred Janek: After coming away with a bloody nose following our first “outing” as an ecologically-oriented promotional products agency back in 2003 already, we simply tried it again in 2007 and since then have become without doubt an institution for sustainability on the promotional products market. This already underlines the fact that the attitude has changed. In the meantime, one knows that ecology doesn’t compromise the design and that sustainability can definitely be very chic. Ultimately, the promotional products market is behaving very similar to the classic consumer goods market. There are good product approaches and even though the EU has succeeded in representing the theme Reach in an incredibly complicated way, the legislation has contributed towards a reduction in the worst environmental polluters. However, overall both the retail and the promotional products market are still very much only combating the symptoms. A further obstacle preventing sustainable developments in the promotional products segment, especially in the case of give-aways, is the price pressure. The industry is also new to the trade when it comes down to cradle-to-cradle concepts, which involve single-material products being used, the materials of which are completely fed back into the production cycle.
In which product groups are there sustainable alternatives? Which have the biggest backlog?
Manfred Janek: There are sustainable alternatives in practically all areas. The electronics sector is lagging furthest behind, where there simply seems to be no demand. For example, Smartphones are not even designed for recycling, let alone cradle-to-cradle processes. The situation is similar in the haptic advertising area. Many of the allegedly more sustainable products are indeed a sham: The ecological footprint of a USB stick doesn’t change significantly just because it is offered with a bamboo case.
Are there further examples of products that promise environmental-friendliness, but which don’t actually keep that promise?
Manfred Janek: One really does have to make sure that the term sustainability doesn’t just degenerate into a fancy term. We often experience this. “Recyclable” has become a buzzword for instance, that says relatively little. It merely refers to the pledge that a product could be recycled: However, there is often no wide-spread functioning system to recycle the respective materials used. The cotton bag is a further example: It is reusable and thus better than a plastic bag. But it is not an ecological product, if it is not made out of organic cotton. The same is true of non-woven bags, these are ultimately made of plastic, i.e. out of fossil resources. The more sustainable alternative is bags made out of recycled PET. Or textiles: The common Oeko-Tex Standard 100 label only provides the information that no toxic chemicals are contained in the finished garment, the production process is not taken into consideration at all. There are stricter certificates than Oeko-Tex itself, such as Oeko-Tex 100 Plus or Standard 1000 as well as a host of testing systems such as Fairwear, Bluesign or GOTS, which are much more effective, because they look into what actually happens in the field. We try to motivate our customers to reach the relevant next step and thus gradually develop an ecological collection of promotional products. In many cases we also initially start off with a real ecological product to show the companies that they can achieve the right success in their corporate communication measures and thus trigger off an initial impulse.
In the face of the existing price pressure and the significance that packaging has for the communication of messages, is it all possible for haptic advertising to be sustainable? Not to mention the long transport routes from the Far East.
Manfred Janek: The road ahead of us is indeed very long and it is a “policy of small steps”, it is about continually improving individual details. We have been striving to shift the production to Europe more and more, which we have succeeded in achieving to an extent. Overall, the ecological footprints here are better. But it really is fact that the packaging contributes greatly to the success. This can be improved quite a lot using recyclable or singleorigin materials. Incidentally, production in the Far East doesn’t necessarily have to be a disadvantage. We try to avoid airfreight, but freight transported from China by sea or train is not necessarily worse than transport by lorry from Bulgaria. And something surprising perhaps: A large share of the ecological innovations are invented in the Far East today. Since the Chinese started pushing sustainability due to not exactly unselfish obvious objectives, many new products among others from the recycling sector are being launched onto the market, but also those that experiment with organic or water-based plastics.
Can sustainability be measured?
Manfred Janek: The opinions of the experts differ here. The “carbon footprint” as a relatively neutral measurement is only available in a few cases and isn’t a patent solution either. We assess a European solution to be principally better than the same solution from the Far East. Certifications are indeed helpful, but one additionally needs expertise about the production and supply processes. Manufacturers like Victorinox or Lamy for example don’t have many certifications, but internally they have been implementing many measures that the environment benefits from for years already. In addition to this there are fantastic manufacturers in the Far East with certifications and good systems. We try to pass on our knowledge to the customer and thus facilitate his decisions. The transparency and the coherence of the entire corporate image is very important. I always say: “A bit of eco isn’t possible”, one needs an overall concept, sufficient know-how and an interest in the processes.
Is the demand for sustainable products growing among the promoting companies?
Manfred Janek: Generally speaking, we haven’t noticed a boom for environmentally-friendly promotional products, the effective demand is only growing slowly and we still have to spend an enormous amount of time talking to the customer about the advantages of ecological promotional products. After all, in the meantime most of the larger industrial companies have a Sustainability Officer and these are becoming increasingly more competent in working closely together with the marketing department and are gaining an internal standing. But the larger the company is, the more important purchasing becomes, and for the latter the price ultimately plays the decisive role. Greenwashing is thus a major issue. The customer would like a product that purports to be sustainable, but doesn’t cost any more than a “normal” one. But this doesn’t work.
How much more expensive are products if they are sustainably produced?
Manfred Janek: That varies completely. In the case of T-shirts made of organic cotton, double the price is realistic, but at least 50% more. Companies that opt for plastics made from recycled materials have to take a 30% price increase into account, organic plastics on the other hand are significantly more expensive.
And promoting companies are not prepared to pay the higher prices?
Manfred Janek: As a rule the big companies aren’t. Our company lives from small and medium-sized companies, mostly owner-run who are clearly committed to sustainability, who often assert themselves for the region and are thus prepared to pay more money for products that originate from the region for instance. As previously already mentioned, it is a question of the overall concept, but also of credibility: Companies who take sustainability seriously have to invest correspondingly more in the marketing for haptic advertising.
// Dr. Mischa Delbrouck spoke with Manfred Janek.
photos: KW Open (3), ORF (2)