Did Swag Pollute BlogHer09?

"Junk."  "Trash." "Stuff."

These are just a few of the words I have heard used to describe the "swag" handed out at BlogHer09, a conference that has aroused as much backlash as "bravos" since it ended last week.

How did things get so out of hand for an event and institution that have commanded so much respect since its founding five years ago?

To some degree, BlogHer became a victim of its own success. The reputation of the conference has grown as "the" place to network with other bloggers, pick up new technical skills and get a sneak peak on blogging's future. As a result, demand to attend has skyrocketed, forcing BlogHer to hold the event in big cities with large conference facilities that turn out to be so expensive, corporate sponsors are needed to help defray costs.

But corporate sponsors don't come to BlogHer conferences to promote blogging. They come to promote their brands and sell their products to the most powerful consumers in the world: American women who blog. The bigger (and more expensive) the conference gets for BlogHer and attendees, the more appealing it is to companies looking to promote themselves to the captive crowd a BlogHer conference delivers over two days.

That was apparent in the degree to which corporations dominated virtually every aspect of BlogHer09 (see photos at FakePlasticFish and OrganicMania).

As an attendee, I felt overwhelmed when I checked in Friday morning. Had I accidentally stumbled upon a promotional event for PepsiCo? The soft drink conglomerate, BlogHer09's major sponsor, seemed to be everywhere: manning its "Juice" TV studio on the main floor, aggressively handing out bottles of its new Trop 50 drink to passersby, dominating the Expo arena with the largest, busiest, freebie-est lounge. But PepsiCo wasn't alone. Every single session was sponsored by a company; some Fortune 500 entity attached its name to every meal and every party. There was no commercial-free "breathing space" anywhere on the agenda.

As a member of the team BlogHer put together to help green the conference, I felt a bit cheated. The Green Team worked hard to collaborate with conference organizers and develop a list of items that would have low eco-impact but still satisfy attendees and conference sponsors alike. Indeed, BlogHer deserves credit for taking significant steps to reduce the environmental footprint of the conference by minimizing paper use, promoting recycling, and reducing waste. They also helped us negotiate with PepsiCo to eliminate bottled water at the event in favor of water dispensers, which we considered a major accomplishment. But I can't help but wonder if the environmental gains we secured through Green Team negotiations were neutralized by all the free bags of Fritos, throwaway plastic pouches of applesauce, and other disposables that were dispensed over the course of the event.

It was especially demoralizing to learn that, in lieu of its throwaway plastic water bottles, Pepsico would hand out flavored water in — yes – throwaway plastic. Talk about an empty victory

As the moderator of the conference's Leadership panel on green and sustainability, I feel like it's my responsibility to step up and express my concerns. I can't lay total blame on the companies. I don't completely blame BlogHer, either. BlogHer founder Elisa Camahort is right when she says that going into the Expo was optional. No one forced attendees to take the junk being handed out there. And BlogHer evidently had no control over independent parties held in private suites to attract select conference goers. Whatever attendees chose to do, they did all on their own. 

However, I do take issue with the argument that because BlogHer09 was not a "green" conference, the conference sponsors did not have to adhere to principles of sustainability in what they offered to attendees.

"Green" is not a niche. It's not even a lifestyle choice. It's a matter of survival. We need to start treating it that way, including at events like BlogHer09.

As women bloggers, we have the world's most powerful communications tools at our disposal. It's why so many corporations exhibited at the event. Consciously or subconsciously, it's probably why so many of us attend: we like having a megaphone, and we want to use it better.

But what good does it do if we use our voices to shout the same messages that have been shouted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which all boil down to "More! More! More!"

 As influential women, we have the power not only to walk away from more junk, but to tell its producers to clean up their act

As influential women, we have the power to encourage companies to offer useful services rather than more stuff we don't need.

As influential women, we have the power to redefine the world we have and create the world we want — not just at events like BlogHer09, but in every aspect of our lives.

Let's do it.

9 Responses to Did Swag Pollute BlogHer09?

  1. CV Harquail August 1, 2009 at 6:23 am #

    Diane, yours is a really important perspective on the ecological sustainability of BlogHer, and I appreciate how you share from all three roles you played– as participant, green purse, and green committee member.
    While many of us have been (rightly) concerned about the social and community sustainability of BlogHer in light of Swag Gate (and as I’ve written about myself), the ecological issues are also key.
    It’s also a great analogy…. the BlogHer organization tries to influence the experience through policy, community engagement and wise choices, and the problem issues sneak through the cracks and flood the center space, all because the organization/community/sponsors failed to take a truly systematic (dare I say ecological) approach to the problem.
    It is pretty amazing to see how so many of the initiatives (e.g., no bottled water, no printed program) created problems that invited ‘solutions’ that were themselves un-green (e.g., bottled water with chemicals, programs printed at home on one side of the paper or participants who had inadequate information about what session to choose, and thus wandered around collecting samples).
    So, not only Did Swag Pervert the Purpose (mypost) we can conclude that Swag Polluted BlogHer — and we can see that both the social and the physical/environmental issues need to be addresses. I’m glad Elisa, Jory & Lisa are listening to feedback and that BlogHers like you are giving them important analyses to consider.

  2. Condo Blues August 3, 2009 at 7:10 pm #

    While I was at BlogHer and speaking to some of the sponsors I often wondered if I should be talking to them as a consumer or as a media outlet? As a green blogger there were many companies that I wanted to ask questions about the ingredients in their products, like all of the laundry detergent and cleaning product sponsors. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with them and make the connection. There were some sponsors that were relevant to my blog topics and some that weren’t but I use as a regular consumer like my cell phone company. I talked to my cell phone company quite a while about how much I liked their company and how in my off line life, I convinced several families to use them. But I doubt that I’ll blog about it. Did they get something out of that transaction? I wonder.

  3. Kye Swenson August 4, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    It seems that no matter how many eco-initiatives you set up at these conferences, there is always so much trash strewn about that it cancels out much of the priorities you had in the first place. Does BlogHer 09 can carry out some virtual events in the future to steer away from all of these problems. Companies can use avatars as reps to talk with bloggers and clients about their products and how they are made. This is definitely where the trade show industry is going, so maybe BlogHer can take advantage as well.

  4. Lexi August 7, 2009 at 11:30 pm #

    I think your site is great. I was wondering if you wanted to do a link exchange. If you can add me to your blog roll. My site is: http://www.lexiyoga.com
    Hope to hear from you soon

  5. Diane MacEachern August 9, 2009 at 7:02 am #

    The swag issue is one that hopefully will continue to be examined. I’m personally not opposed to swag per se; I’m opposed to junk that creates a lot of trash, uses a lot of energy, potentially exposes people to unhealthy ingredients, and serves no useful purpose other than to promote the provider. But bottom line: we don’t have to take the stuff. It’s empowering to walk away. How can we get more people to do so?

  6. Jason August 11, 2009 at 11:48 am #

    I love playing golf. I’m playing this week.
    This is a great site you have here. I have a blog myself that inspires people and I would like to exchange links with you. When you get a chance, let me know if this is possible, either by email or a comment on my site. Jason

  7. ellie August 22, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I blog, but I’m not a BlogHer blogger. However, lots of the women bloggers I read did attend the convention here in Chicago.
    Gotta say, it’s weird that so many mom bloggers went ga-ga over the giveaways. Isn’t it their children’s world we’re hoping to improve. Shouldn’t they be the first to hug onto the green lifestyle?
    When I get a picture in my mind of BlogHer, it’s of women laden down with stuff they don’t need and really did pay for in more ways than they know!
    Glad I found your blog.

  8. Diane MacEachern August 26, 2009 at 5:57 am #

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, I found it weird that people went crazy over Fritos (literally). We need to re-think our notion of “value” – not have it defined in terms of free junk companies want to give us, but in terms of quality experiences and goods that will have meaning and endure.

  9. Kim September 15, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    Great post! I appreciate your honesty, too. When corporations get involved in any aspect of life, that’s when things seem to get out of control and sustainability and common sense seems to take a back seat.

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