Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Plastic on the Beach... and Still Flooding the Promo Industry


It's been raining solid here in San Francisco for a few weeks. After Friday's storm I hiked down to one of my favorite secluded beaches in west Marin County. From the mesa high above the ocean I could see huge logs and other debris washed ashore. I scurried down a muddy trail to have a closer look.

What I found, tangled among the driftwood and seaweed, was a lot of plastic.

Unnatural forms washed in from the Pacific -- in every size, shape and color... bottles, bags, toys, containers, packaging, lighters, filters, pens, parts of shoes, building materials, on and on. Within five minutes I found enough plastic trash to fill a large duffle bag. Unfortunately, it's something we see all too often along the otherwise pristine beaches of the Bay Area and beyond.

Plastic is everywhere in our lives. For many of us, it's not a problem. Most of it ends up in landfills, and well... out of site, out of mind. As a branding guy earlier in my career I helped package and market numerous plastic products in plastic packages. As a consumer, I've bought a lot of plastic crap. I don't feel good about that now, because I know there are other alternatives.

I've learned about those big blobs of plastic floating around our oceans. I've been to the landfills to see where the plastic goes and how long it stays. I've learned how inefficient it is to produce many plastic products, and how it can contaminate our ground water with toxic liquids and residue.

Plastic is a particularly big problem with consumer products, packaging, and promotional marketing. The best way to eliminate the negative impacts associated with producing, using and disposing of plastic, is to reduce its use in consumer products and packaging. Thankfully, a growing number of my marketing and design colleagues are forging change in those areas.

The U.S. promotional product industry, however, has a long ways to go. It's aware of this issue and there is a lot of talk about "going green". But from what we've seen much of the talk is superficial. For example, many product suppliers openly complain about California's Prop 65. And despite last year's well documented and shameful scandal of toxic toys from some Chinese suppliers, the head of the major promotional product trade association recently referred to "alleged problems" with toxic plastic from China in his blog, as if it's all just overblown or a misunderstanding.

The good news is that there are certainly less damaging promotional alternatives today and we have vetted hundreds of promotional goods that meet higher standards of sustainability. The bad news is that plastic still dominates the business. Most clients still want things fast and cheap and too few people in this sales-driven industry seem to want to lose a commission over this issue.

I don't pretend to be perfect and we all make compromises from time to time. But the promotions industry needs to do a much better job recognizing its negative impacts and working to reduce the use of plastic from the top down. I hope my colleagues will come to the same conclusion that I did -- sooner rather than later. All they need to do is stroll on any beach. They may be surprised at the branded plastic stuff the tides bring in.