How to Give Away Merch Ethically

By Kyra Leigh

It is no secret that the promotional merchandising industry has been less than beneficial to the environment. However, the benefits of merchandise for building a company’s brand and relationships with customers cannot be overstated.

So with merchandising so integral to business, how can we work to make it more ethical?


It has to be stated from the outset that simply not having merchandise is the very best way to protect the environment, however, as stated above, in present society, this is not possible. Instead think about how you can reduce the amount of merch that you create and give away.

Only buy what you need. A rather obvious suggestion, one that is especially true for items - like food - that have a limited shelf life. Keep a record of how many of each item is given away/bought each month and adjust what you buy accordingly. There is no point bulk buying 500 branded chocolate bars each month when only 300 are used, leaving the remaining 200 to go to waste.

Allow your customers to choose what they want. This is most pertinent to give-aways where a range of items might be packed together as standard and given away. We can guarantee you that the recipient does not want or need everything in that pack and much might be thrown away without being used even once! Just think back to the last time you went to an exhibition event and came back with 5 totes, 20 pens and pencils, 9 bottles of hand sanitiser, 6 lanyards, 3 pairs of sunglasses, and a plastic thingamajig with no discernable use. How much of that went straight into the bin? Instead, allow people to choose their own gifts, building a selection that is tailored for them. Not only will you have a better understanding of what to buy for next time, but the items are much more likely to be used and appreciated for longer.

Simplify your branding. No matter what branding you choose, there is going to be some impact on the environment whether that is the use of chemicals, water, or energy for the machinery. Therefore, the less complicated your design, the smaller the impact on the planet.

Think about what materials you are using. For example, you may want to create a plastic-free line of merch, or commit to using only recycled materials. Not only will this create a great story for your merchandise, but it will also help limit consumption of materials that are detrimental to the environment.


It is universally acknowledged that anything described as “single use” is terrible for the environment. So creating merchandise that will stand the test of time is absolutely essential.

Select items that are clearly designed to be reused. Again, another obvious one, however, items that look like they are meant to be used multiple times are more likely to actually be reused than items that do not. For example, a metal water bottle immediately tells the recipient that it is to be reused, whereas a PP plastic bottle that can technically be reused is likely to be thrown out after the first use. This mode of thinking can also be extended to packaging. Beautiful, sturdy packaging is so much more likely to be reused than the flimsy alternatives. You could even go the extra mile and tell people to reuse it with a custom strapline!

Choose products that are easily fixed. This can either be refills for something such as pens, or replacement parts for when part of an item breaks. Some brands such as Patagonia also offer repair services to help extend the item’s life expectancy.


Recycling often feels like a minefield, so make it easier on yourself and your customers, and keep things simple.

Use easily recyclable materials. The harder or more confusing something is to recycle, the more likely it is to end up in landfill. Therefore, favour materials that are easily recycled as standard in collection services. Furthermore, choose items that are easily split into their individual components, especially if parts of a product are not recyclable and other parts are. For more information, check out our handy guide to materials here.

Take advantage of take-back schemes. Many highstreet brands offer recycling schemes in which old items can be sent back for recycling or reuse. This is particularly useful for products such as clothes which are difficult to recycle.

If the available materials are not recyclable, can they be biodegradable? In an ideal world every material should be easily recyclable, however this is not always possible. With this in mind, consider how long an item will take to decompose in landfill (if at all), and opt for materials that will biodegrade in the least amount of time. For clothing, choose 100% natural fabrics. See if there are wooden alternatives to the plastic product that you are looking at. Please do be aware that many biodegradable plastics/resins are only biodegradable at any reasonable speed in artificial conditions that cannot be met in a landfill.

Include disposal instructions. Let the end user know how best to throw away an item, if they need to take it apart, if there are any take-back or repair schemes available.


Support responsible brands and manufacturers. Like recycling, this also feels treacherous with many companies insisting that they are as green as it gets. However, some key characteristics to look out for include:

Social and environmental accreditations from 3rd parties. This lets you know that the findings are unbiased and as accurate as possible. Find out more about the most common accreditations here.

Transparency. A responsible brander/manufacturer will not be afraid to be open about matters such as waste and carbon emissions, and will outline how they plan to improve on this and on what timescale.

Actively engaged in sourcing more ethical products and services. These suppliers will want to have the conversation with you about more ethical alternatives, proactively updating their products range to reflect this across the board, going beyond just having an eco category.