According to a recent study by IBM and the National Retail Federation, nearly 70%1 of consumers in Canada and the US think it’s important for a brand to be eco-friendly or sustainable. Younger customers are increasingly demanding higher standards from companies regarding environmental concerns among other ethics, and we, as businesses, can start making a difference too.

That doesn’t mean only looking into our operations, products, or services, but also how we advertise ourselves. Indeed, we do so with the best intentions – we’re all simply trying to promote our business – but can we rethink how we do it without the cheap branded plastic and needless giveaways?

Certainly, there are other advertising tactics that aren’t doing the environment any favours. However, promotional products, mail advertising, and giveaways stood out to us with zero-waste becoming a more popular subject.

1. Promotional Products

How many times have you been to an event, meeting, or seminar (even your own mailbox) and you were gifted a branded item or bag of items? How much of it did you use? How much of it ended up in the trash? Otherwise, were the items worth donating?

Think about how many people attended that event and how many events there are just like it. As an attendee, we can simply refuse the items or put them to good use before disposing of them properly. However, the best solution is for businesses to not offer or rethink how they offer these products in the first place – especially when they appear in mailboxes.

While the intention is good, chances are if we’re able to purchase and customize so many items at a low price and a high volume, potential clients likely have that item or multiples in their home or office already. Many of these items are made of plastic and end up in the landfill (or other places they don’t belong) where they take years to break down. 

Not only that, but plastic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every step in its lifecycle2. While plastic does have its place, the more we make, the more we harm the environment.

If promotional products have been a successful tactic for you or your clients really do love them, there are options that are more environmentally friendly such as:

  • Reusable tote bags made from materials like cotton, bamboo, or hemp
  • Glass water bottles – while not biodegradable, they’re recyclable
  • Stationery and business cards made from recycled or sustainably sourced paper

That’s only to name a few, however, going back to our first question on how many promotional items we receive – why not stand out? The recipient is more likely to keep the item if it’s a quality item, it’s useful to them, and if the final product including customization looks good.

Even better if an event makes items like this optional for attendees and the rest is stored to be given away at another time. Plus, think of the cost this approach can save a business.

2. Flyers / mail advertising

While some might find it costly, print advertising is still an effective way to reach potential clients. However, the true cost of “junk mail” is 100 million trees, 28 billion gallons of water, and enough energy to power more than 9 million cars.

The average adult receives 41 pounds of junk mail a year!

While it may not be junk to the sender – 44% of it goes to the landfill unopened3. Not to mention the cost of producing and transporting.

If flyers and mail advertising are a proven way for a business to reach clients, there are a few ways that business can adapt print ads to be more friendly to the environment such as:

  • Sustainably sourced paper and vegetable-based inks
  • Making sure files are correct to avoid misprints
  • Making sure the paper can be recycled when the reader is finished with it – no plastic coating or brightly coloured paper
  • Encouraging recipients to recycle – something as simple as “recycle me” printed where it’s visible
  • Using knowledge from previous campaigns to narrow down their target audience, postal codes, and frequency
  • Using knowledge from previous campaigns to narrow down which types of flyers / mail are effective and which aren’t
  • Reducing the size – directing potential clients to view their catalogue online with a postcard in place of the printed catalogue – or ask recipients to opt into having one sent and give instructions to opt out

Another way to reduce junk mail is to opt out at home or your place of business if you find you don’t get anything useful to you. Canada Post won’t deliver unaddressed mail to boxes with signage asking them not to – unless it’s a community newspaper, government mailing, in relation to Elections Canada, or it’s specifically addressed to the mailbox.

3. Free Giveaways

This one is similar to promotional items, except we’re talking about a business’s own products given away as samples, prizes, or gifts. Sometimes it needs to come from someone on the outside – not everyone is going to want a product, even if it’s free (and that’s okay). After all, a business’s target audience can’t be everyone.

When it comes to physical products and samples some of the first things that come to mind are tiny, single-use packages, toothpicks, plastic cups etc.. On top of that, if they’re mailed, the box or envelope that goes around them. While a sample might help a customer choose a product, handing them out to everyone could be wasteful.

As for prizes. Yes, social media and other contests can be a good way to get organic reach or raise awareness of a business. However, if they aren’t done right it could be a waste of money and resources. Businesses won’t reach their target audience if the prize doesn’t relate to their offering. Also, they might attract those that simply want something for free – resulting in their emails or other communications becoming spam / unwanted. Furthermore, it’s best to leave runner-up prizes out of the mix as well since they’re less desirable and might end up in the trash. 

Gifts are a lovely sentiment too, however, not everyone is going to want one or put it to use. A simple way for a business to save money and the environment during these types of promotions is to ask the customer if they want the gift first or have them opt in versus stuffing it into their bag at the register or sending it with their purchase.

An alternative to most samples, prizes, and gifts could be a coupon for a free product or discount. If the potential customer makes effort to get the product from a coupon, they are more likely to actually want the product and use it. Loyalty programs where points are earned can also replace gifts and would allow the customer to choose a product they want or need.

As consumers, we can help by being more mindful of the things we accept and how to dispose of the packaging or item itself when we’re finished with it.


While we took you through some advertising tactics that aren’t so great for the environment, the good news is there are ways businesses can make their advertising greener while cutting costs and bringing opportunities to delight loyal or potential customers. 

As we mentioned, no business’s target audience is everyone. Narrowing down a target audience is a common solution to preventing waste in advertising and has many other benefits within a business. It allows us to take a quality over quantity approach.