I had recently returned from another RSA Conference in San Francisco. This year I was fortunate enough to attend as a speaker on a panel titled “Let’s Blow Up Security Awareness and Start Over”. It was a thoroughly fun panel as we shared our ideas and thoughts on the security awareness industry and where it is going wrong.

One thing that has always bothered me about these conferences is the amount of garbage swag brought in by vendors. You know what I’m talking about too…shirts, USB drives, pens, bags, backpacks, socks (YES SOCKS), stress balls, etc. JUNK.

I’d be willing to bet good money that a very high majority of these items end up in landfills within a week or two (if not immediately before leaving for the airport). Those that do not, usually live out a sad and lonely life on someone’s desk for a few years being admired on “bring your kid to work day”, until they quit, then it’s garbage city again.

It’s a little ironic when I see all the effort by the conference facility to provide proper recycling & compost bins around the conference. I’d love to see an option to dump your swag. There should be a giant dumpster for all the crap swag, it could be a contest! The vendor with the most items would be required to provide a clear plan for reducing their swag eco-footprint for the next conference/year.

As I walked around the expo floor of RSAC, an environment louder and more obnoxious than a Vegas casino at some points, I didn’t catch many vendors offering swag items that were at all eco-friendly.

Sure, the “reusable bags” are a way companies think they’re maintaining eco-friendly status – but what about the process to print on them? What about all the items they’re filling it with? Pens, fidget cubes, stuffed animals. Don’t get me started on t-shirts. As the husband of an eco-fashion writer I’ve seen the numbers and know just how horrible the fashion industry is on the environment. It’s the fourth largest polluter.

So follow me on this, all these attendees show up to RSA getting all their free swag and bags of crap (Woot?). They bring those back, sometimes sharing them with their teams. At some point, there is a discussion that goes “hey that swag item is really cool, we should do those for our security awareness program”. I’ve literally had these discussions and am guilty of promoting swag items for my programs.

But ultimately this conference swag cycle ends up with your security awareness program slapping logos on items to push into your employees’ faces.

Why? Why do we need to do this? Look, I get it. I’m kind of arguing against myself on this one because I definitely support the right swag items for the right situations.

As we begin having these discussions and making these decisions about ways to utilize swag and giveaways, I think there is a huge opportunity for us as an industry to help reduce our eco-footprint and move towards a sensible eco-friendly based approach.

Is there a junk test we can use run before we decide on an item? Is there some diligence we can do before we make decisions? How about “what are the chances this ends up in a trash can?”

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There’s a lot of interesting ways you can help reduce our industry eco-footprint, whether it’s buying from companies paying fair wages, using organic cotton, low impact dying processes, recycled plastics, avoiding overuse of plastic wrap, etc. There are options, we just have to find them.

Here are some interesting facts and tidbits to consider as you begin thinking about what swag items you want for NCSAM or RSAC (kudos to Benita Robledo for helping with this data):

1.    Tee Shirts: While cotton shirts are better than a poly-blend (polyester is essentially plastic), conventional cotton requires more pesticides than any other crop, an estimated 10% of our pesticide use worldwide. Try organic cotton for a healthier planet and people.  If you really want to up your environmental game go for hemp t-shirts. Hemp requires 50% less water than cotton, doesn’t need pesticides, and can be grown on marginal land so it won’t replace food crops.

2.    Plastic swag: plastic should be considered enemy number one because each step of its life from cradle to grave is toxic. Plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, aka a non-renewable resource. Turning that raw petroleum into plastic requires the use of known carcinogens which pollute our soil and waterways.

Soft plastics require the use of phthalates which is linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption, and infertility amongst other things. These phthalates don’t bind to the plastic either, which means they “off-gas” and pollute our air. Once we throw plastic out it takes up to 700 years to biodegrade. Most plastic ends up in our waterways, breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces which are eaten by fish and work their way up the food chain until they end up in humans.  

When you consider how much harm plastic does, a USB drive that will probably sit in your drawer for months before you finally throw it away really doesn't seem worth it. Or consider what you’re drinking when you accept an obviously cheap production knock-off water bottle.

3.    Backpacks: Human rights violations are rampant in the garment industry. When you purchase a piece of swag, consider the work that went into it.

Let’s take a backpack for instance. The fabric, zippers, and any other fasteners had to be purchased. Someone had to sew the basic structure. Another person had to attach the zipper. A third person attached the other elements. Someone else had to print or embroider the company logo. It had to be packaged by another person. The company had to pay for shipping.

The manufacturer needed to make a profit and the vendor needed to make an even healthier profit. That’s a lot of work by a lot of people, so how are you purchasing it for a measly $2.89 wholesale? Because Apparel factories rely on forced unpaid overtime, sexual harassment, and unsafe working conditions to keep their prices low and their workers “in-line”. The average worker in Bangladesh earns $0.24 cents an hour far below a living wage.

How many of you walk away from RSAC/Blackhat each year with a backpack full of pens, water bottles, and t-shirts?

As the need for security awareness programs continues to rise and more and more companies begin investing in resources, it is crucial that we consider how what we’re doing impacts our world. 


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