We need to rethink swag

If I could acquire some branded material object for free and neglect to do so, it feels like I’m losing money (that’s girl math, right?). Before starting college, I had heard of the promises of free T-shirts galore. Honestly, I’ve gotten fewer of those than I expected, but the overall quantity of swag I’ve received throughout these four years is just ample, but overwhelmingly so, and most of it hasn’t been from Big Duke. It’s great, and it’s awful at the same time.

Herein lies the vicious symbiotic relationship between the swag giver and the swag receiver. An entity gives its members a swag item to boost morale and/or promote themselves without giving people what they really want (jobs and money). The recipient gets the dopamine hit of receiving a free item and an extra sense of satisfaction if they get any use out of the thing. 

The problem is, it’s not always that swag meets a real need. When it does, it’s spectacular. When it doesn’t, I’m often left wishing I didn’t get anything at all — or got something useful like an umbrella. I know it’s the ultimate first-world problem to say I’m upset because I receive too many free things. You have to admit much of this stuff is utter crap. We can’t pretend to care about the environment and then pass out oodles of plastic dohickeys that don’t have a use, each individually wrapped in single-use plastic casings.

By virtue of being a college student, I must fully move at least twice a year. Therefore, I must audit the bulk of my possessions uncomfortably often. Sure, sometimes I buy clothes or shoes I end up not liking or receive a gift I won’t use, but those are often easily donated or given to a friend when I do a sort. Swag, however, continues to haunt me when I don’t want it anymore because I often can’t in good conscience give it away due to its specificity or low quality.

Donation is not a panacea, however. Not for swag and not even for unbranded clothes. Sure, it’s peace of mind for the donator, but if you think everything you give away is actually going to be worn by people in your community, you may be disappointed. Yes, many of the things we donate to places like a thrift store, Salvation Army or Goodwill continue their life as the garments they were originally made into, but a larger portion will be turned into rags or raw material or perhaps shipped to another country and sold for cheap, disrupting local economies. That’s if it isn’t thrown away and considering what I see when I look inside the recycling bins on this campus, Duke students are extremely culpable of wishcycling.

If you look in a Goodwill, most of the stuff there is unbranded, save for generic enough university or sports team merch. These sorts of second-hand clothing stores and charities are often made with the goal of getting the less fortunate back on their feet. While we thrift-loving college students may appreciate super random t-shirts for the period that they’re in style, people who must buy second-hand are more likely to want very neutral, casual or semi-professional clothing that they can wear to work. While they have since watered down this policy, Patagonia made the news a couple of years ago by ending their corporate branding of products. They recognized the difficulty in repurposing branded gear and have only now begun accepting select corporate customers upon expanding their ability to unbrand and repurpose their gear. Most companies do not care to do this because it’s not profitable unless your business model involves being environmentally conscious.

Don’t get me wrong; I own swag items that I love dearly or use daily — in fact, I wrote the first draft of this with a pen from a career fair and a club crewneck. But getting swag almost feels like being a lab rat pressing a pellet dispenser again and — sometimes you get a treat, sometimes nothing and sometimes, frankly, a piece of shit that you have to figure out what to do with. In the period in which I was ideating and writing this article, I got two blankets, two hats, two shirts, a medal and a cup as a result of my normal actions. You must agree that this is not a sustainable rate at which to acquire new possessions.

Anytime I forget to bring one of my dozen branded tote bags — Citadel, Lululemon, D.E. Shaw and Co., take your pick — to the store and have to use a plastic one, I wonder what this is all for. I think about how I probably use one tote bag twice a week and need to use these N tote bags each over 50 times to make the cost of making them worthwhile. When I get a T-shirt and medal for running a race, I get home and remember that I don’t wear T-shirts and must keep this medal forever because there’s no way to recycle it. I think about the three logoed backpacks I’ve been given that I’ll seldom use because I already have a backpack I bought in high school and will just buy a carbon copy of when it goes kaput. On the one hand, these are items that plenty of people in the world would love to have — for free, no less! On the other hand, no one who didn’t participate in the event wants a bookbag emblazoned with “Visible Thinking: Duke Undergraduate Research Symposium 2022” (and many who did do not need another one).

Some might say these imprinted possessions tell a story about my life. I don’t care, though, because, above all, having more stuff than I need just stresses me out. T-shirts and hoodies half a size too small for me with my last name and soccer number and possibly my high school’s questionable Indian mascot — who the heck wants that? I’ve got Duke stuff too — at least I can still wear that out in public — mostly dorm hoodies and the weirdest random small plastic objects. Take a good look in those donation bins at the end of last semester and see how many Wannamaker hoodies and Duke Football jerseys are in there. And the career fairs — oh, the career fairs! We love to get random stuff from the companies we’d make a Faustian bargain to work at — the Bank of America tumbler, the Bloomberg Engineering bucket hat, the J.P. Morgan sunglasses, the SpaceX golf ball, the Duolingo plushie. It feels so good to get these swag items, but then you have to live with having them indefinitely unless you just throw them away.

We need not eradicate swag, but we must rethink it. Does the swag item’s utility surpass the cash value to create it? Are the items something people conceivably already own and won’t need to replace with any level of frequency? We should call out organizations for making overly wasteful and useless swag. 

On the other side, we should normalize refusing swag that we will not use — that is unsustainably produced or packaged — or that we will just throw away. If we use a piece of clothing swag for a while and need to get rid of it, we should first see if any friends would get use out of it before making a decision to play donation roulette — at the very least, don’t throw it away. We see swag as a treat or reward, but other, more satisfactory ways exist to achieve the same or better outcomes. Say, donating the money for mediocre t-shirts towards a neutral humanitarian cause or giving out small e-gift cards to locations of the receiver’s choice. No matter what it feels like, I won’t die if I don’t take a t-shirt I will never wear from a swag giveaway, and neither will you.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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