The Impact of Freebies: An Earth Day Post

The word ‘free’ has its own special magic for many of us. I’m the daughter of Asian immigrants who came to the US with nothing, worked hard, saved up, and made it into middle class tax hell. My childhood was full of extra napkins and ketchup packets saved from McDonald’s, red and white wet wipe packages from KFC, squeezy stress relief gadgets from computer conventions, and even the odd stuffed animal from a free bin at a garage sale.

Even with my commitment to reducing, free still has an undeniable allure for me. This time of year, I’m thinking about the impact of all the free stuff that gets handed out at Earth Day celebrations: T-shirts, reusable bags, reusable water bottles, flip-flops, key chains, and the inevitable Random Plastic Kitsch for the kids.

You’ll find two basic mindsets on Twitter about Earth Day. We have the ‘Yay, Earth Day!’ camp, and the ‘What a pointless, greenwashed excuse for shopping’ camp. As usual, I’m somewhere in the middle. I do think companies (even green ones)  who advertise Earth Day sales are kind of missing the point, and that consumers who see Earth Day as another shopping occasion are equally missing the point. But I won’t deny that Earth Day is a good opportunity to raise awareness and preach outside the choir.

But do we really need free stuff to do that? It is so easy to equate zero impact on our wallets with zero impact on the Earth. It’s like the environmentally conscious part of my brain switches off when it comes to free. I think, “I didn’t buy anything, so I didn’t mess up the planet more.” Not true.

Everything, whether it cost us money or not, has an environmental impact. Free is a myth. The reusable bag was probably made in China and may well contain toxic dyes and chemicals that leached into the atmosphere. The T-shirts are probably not organic cotton, but even if they are, represent a significant investment of natural and human resources for something we may not even wear more than a few times. Just because it’s being offered to us at an Earth Day celebration doesn’t mean it’s green, or that we should take it. (Case in point: how many reusable bags do you have?) I’m not much of an activist, but maybe even turning Earth Day kitsch down isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a way to get companies not to make it.

There are many ways to celebrate Earth Day that don’t involve conspicuous consumption. Many, many blogs have offered suggestions: go for a walk, plant a tree, pick up trash, or just get outside and appreciate the fine color of the sky and the texture of clouds. Being neither social nor celebratory, I’m not sure I’ll be attending any celebrations. But if you go, I hope you’ll turn down that extra reusable bag you don’t really need.

How are you celebrating Earth Day? Do you take the Earth Day freebies?


19 responses to this post.

  1. Your timing is impeccable, Jennifer. I was at Toronto’s Green Living Show this past weekend, and everybody was toting their free GLS recycled bag. “Free” meaning “free of cost to the event attendee”, not “free of cost to the environment, the local economy, and the factory workers”.

    I heard somewhere that those recycled bags replace 17 new plastic shopping bags. So when you start accumulating the recycled ones at home – I try not to and still have about a dozen – you’ve somehow managed to waste huge resources. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean we should take it. If we take less, they will make less!

    As for how I’m celebrating Earth Day, I’ll be helping to prepare a new garden for growing veggies for the urban CSA I volunteer with and belong to. Also, I’m going to be learning from my friend how to tune up my bike for the spring; in return, I’ll cook him a nice meal!

    Veggie gardening and cycling are two green things I plan to do a lot more of this year.


    • Hi Andrea,
      I’m pretty sure I have more than 12 reusable bags: ones that roll up, organic cotton ones, fair trade hemp ones, recycled plastic ones, ones that were given to me for free, ones that live in the car, ones that live by the closet door…yikes. Now I’m kind of afraid to count how many there are. I’m not proud of my collection, but I’m going to guess it’s not unusual among people who are concerned about the environment. Has each been used 17 times or more? Most of them have, for sure, but not all. I certainly don’t need any more for the next ten or more years. This almost sounds like a post in itself.

      This Earth Day, I think I’ll just be taking a long walk in the woods by myself. I want to bring my wildflower guide and a sketchbook and spend some time getting to know my local flora.


  2. Posted by Laura on 04/20/2011 at 15:32

    Excellent points Andrea. I like the allure of “free”, but I try and keep that in check. My kids celebrate earth day at school, other than that, we have no plans.


    • Hi Laura!
      I’m with you on the cliche but true ‘Earth day is every day’ thing. Friday is just another day for me. It’s good that schools are promoting Earth Day, though. I hope not too much free swag is involved there. 🙂


  3. Posted by bitt on 04/20/2011 at 15:38

    Yes I am so sick of reuseable bags! They have made them so cheap that people buy and get too many of them. I dislike the ones that most stores sell, I have canvas ones and many that are over 10 years old. I was using canvas bags way before it was popular.

    The only freebies I will likely get are free food samples. Hopefully in compostable containers or with no containers.


    • Hi Bitt,
      I heard a silly commercial on the radio a while ago promoting reusable bags as ‘versatile fashion accessories’ or something like that. Gah. The message — use reusable instead of disposable bags — is fine, but having one to match every outfit is lame and not very eco-friendly at all. Reusable bags are everywhere, and everyone has at least a couple, but I still don’t see that many people using the ones they have with any regularity. There’s no point to getting more if you aren’t using the ones you already have.

      Hope you get some terrific food samples this year!


  4. I definitely won’t be taking any freebies on Earth Day. And this is a good reminder to avoid freebies on most days. I hadn’t consciously considered that before although I’m generally not the kind of person to accumulate stuff I don’t need. Still I did get one free bag last year so I’m guilty as charged. Thanks for raising our level of awareness on this topic. I don’t have a special plan for earth day aside from tying to live with my eyes wide open.


    • Hi Sandra,
      I hate to admit it, but I’m still far from immune to freebies. I’m especially susceptible to natural personal products — lip balms, lotions, soaps, etc., which, to be fair, I use and (more or less) need. But I still know that I consume more things if they’re free, and that’s not good at all. I’m learning to make my own lotion and lip balm and invested in the supplies to last about a year, which should help keep me from taking freebies. If you only acquired one reusable bag last year, I’d say you’re doing better than most!

      I love your approach to Earth Day and to life.


  5. “Free is a myth”… so true! Great post!


    • Thank you! Does Australia go all out for Earth Day? I’ve never been, but I thought free swag was primarily an American phenomenon.


  6. Posted by Colleen on 04/20/2011 at 23:43

    Yes, I have had my concerns about this sort of advertising myself. It seems there are plenty of “Green” product companies out there that have just jumped on the band wagon just to get a cut of the market rather actually caring about the state of the planet.


    • Hi Colleen,
      Yeah, greenwashing is a big problem. I think a lot of the issue is that mainstream culture hasn’t made the connection between green and using less — all too often, green is framed as a consumer movement of buying differently, not of buying less and using better. Corporations don’t want us to make that connection, either, since it’s really not profitable for them. But the marketing opportunity is too good to pass up, especially on Earth Day.


  7. Many years ago, I was involved with a group that organized meals for people in need. The leader of the group wasn’t really interested in the cause … he simply wanted to add the program to his resume and get a better position in the company we worked for. That bothered me a lot! But then I realized that his motives weren’t really important … a lot of people were being helped. That’s how I look at Earth Day. I’m pretty sure that many of the participating companies aren’t “green” … and I’m positive that many of the “freebies” aren’t Eco-friendly. But I wonder if, overall, they draw people in and raise awareness? When a person uses that plastic key-chain that says “Recycle” … does he come closer to caring about the earth? I really don’t know! I guess I view Earth Day as something more for those who aren’t particularly “with the program”. For those of us who strive to live green, the “freebies” aren’t all that tempting and we think about the earth every day. I will say that when I attend a festival where a “green” booth is set up with freebies, I ask them about the items they are handing out and whether or not they are Eco-friendly. And then, I write to the people “in charge” and make suggestions.

    I have 4 reusable bags … plenty for all of my shopping. 🙂


    • Hi Small Footprints,
      I like your analogy and agree that the potential benefits of Earth Day [probably] outweigh the greenwashing, pointless freebies, and the other not-particularly-green aspects. You’re right that it’s not directed towards people who are already well on their way to living more consciously. We all have to start somewhere.

      Good for you for being polite and persistent in asking about how those freebies are made! If enough of us who were bothered by such things made a point of following up, I think these companies might get the hint.


  8. […] Not easy to be green ~ The-impact-of-freebies-an-earth-day-post […]


  9. Posted by melissawest on 04/21/2011 at 14:45

    I’m with you on cringing over “free” stuff. So many times I tell people, “no thanks” because my kids do not need another plastic trinket, I do not need more tchotchkes, we are FINE without more STUFF. And too often the “free” is crap. I’d rather have a buck off my purchase or something that MATTERED instead of plastic made in China stuff.


    • Hi Melissa,
      Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bargain with people who want to give us free stuff? (“I don’t need another reusable bag, but I’d love it if you would put 50 cents towards rainforest recovery instead.”) Recently a new Safeway opened near me, and they mailed me a reusable bag to announce their opening. I didn’t even have a chance to refuse it! Ridiculous. I’m thinking about taking it back to Safeway and giving it to the first person who is checking out without a reusable. This would be so much easier if I liked talking to people I didn’t know.


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