A Missed Opportunity

Michael Milligan
3 min readSep 29, 2020

Now that we’ve been working from home for an extended period of time, we’ve adjusted to the “new normal” of doing business routinely online, including attending virtual conferences and expositions. I was recently on a CEO online forum, and many of my counterparts were discussing some of the challenges of transitioning their conferences to virtual events. Many on the thread expressed excitement about shipping conference “swag bags” to their attendees since they couldn’t give them away in person.

I immediately thought about the missed opportunity. Think about all the energy, resources and money that go into making and shipping these giveaways to each conference attendee. Tote bags, pens, notebooks, earbuds, USB drives — they are mostly produced in low-wage factories, shipped to the facility where the swag bags are being assembled, packaged into cardboard boxes full of plastic and shipped all over the world.

To me, this is an opportunity to change not only how we do business, but also an opportunity to help save our planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a complete reset from our normal routines. Why not think about how we can do things differently while making a positive impact on our environment?

Conference swag is designed to build brand awareness while making event attendees feel like they’re getting perks exclusive to registrants. But it’s really not that effective and doesn’t produce any long-term benefits to promoting the organization or its events. Years ago, I started to turn down the items conference organizers attempted to give me, since I found myself leaving the swag in my hotel room trash bin. Regardless of our initial intent, these giveaways ultimately end up in the landfill where, in cases such as plastic, they remain for the next thousand years. And the brand awareness they were intended to convey seemed just as brief as the excitement of receiving a free gift.

New research suggests that despite declining greenhouse gas emissions during COVID-19, the world is still heating fast enough to reach the two degrees Celsius limit that will result in catastrophic climate change. Just this month, we’ve seen two of the largest glaciers in the Antarctic break free — increasing the threat of large-scale sea-level rise. Uncontrollable wildfires continue to devastate hundreds of thousands of acres on the west coast of the U.S. and the largest number of tropical storms and hurricanes in recorded history made landfall in the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

We need to seize this opportunity to transform how we do business — for the better. As an association leader, I made the executive decision several years ago to make our annual event, the ABET Symposium, paperless. This meant no more programs or printed handouts; everything would be available on the event app. A few years later, we also stopped handing out conference giveaways, and we will continue this tradition for our first virtual Symposium in 2021.

When planning your own virtual conference, rather than sending swag bags, I urge you to take the opportunity to educate attendees about the benefits of attending a virtual event. Consider sending an email to registrants to share statistics on energy saved or plastic kept out of landfills as a result of your organization’s efforts to reduce the environmental impact of your events. These types of communications not only serve to educate your constituents, they can also help build enduring relationships.

If you’re worried that ditching the swag means diminishing brand awareness, don’t be. Studies have found that younger generations, in particular, develop brand loyalty based on causes and communities they care about, not on the free stuff they receive at your event. Let’s focus our resources on making our world a better place. We all have a duty to protect our planet. Let’s use this as an occasion to make a positive impact and curb global climate change.

We’ve started planning the 2021 ABET Symposium, and while I know I will miss seeing everyone in person, I am excited for all the opportunities a virtual format will bring. Interested in learning more? Join our mailing list for news about Upcoming ABET Events.



Michael Milligan

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.