Nothing Green About SXSW

Friday saw the start of this years SXSW interactive, film and music festivals in Austin Texas, and once again they highlight the scourge of swag: the ‘stuff we all get’ that soon becomes the stuff we don’t want. Whilst SXSW likes to tout its environmental credentials as a carbon neutral conference (largely by means of carbon offsetting) it amazes me that year after year this supposed concern results in the following familiar image:

A sea of swag bags from SXSW 2007. Photograph: Eric Hodel

These are just some of the thousands of ‘Big Bags’ offered to each conference attendee, and whilst you don’t have to grab one, you are heavily encouraged to do so. As described by Allen Stern in this video at Center Networks, this years interactive Big Bag contains:

  • 17 various sized flyers for software products, websites and events taking place during the week,

  • 4 stickers,

  • A Microsoft ‘Silverlight Essentials’ CD (containing content that could be downloaded from the internet),

  • 4 magazines (most of which are old issues), whose combined weight is several pounds,

  • The conference programme,

  • The Austin Chronicle (included regardless of the fact you already have a copy, the newspaper having been left outside your hotel room in the morning),

  • and 7 other items including a snack bar, scratch card, ‘Internet All-stars’ trading card, a phone sock and a Crumpler camera bag.

Whilst there is a slight reduction in the number of items placed in the interactive bag compared to last year I question whether this was intentional, or due to the current economic climate – I suspect the later.

This isn’t a problem limited to just SXSW – many other conferences exhibit the same sort of wastefulness – yet SXSW is easily one of the worst offenders. This is especially true when you consider Gold badge holders get two big bags, whilst Platinum badge holders get three, one for each festival they’ve registered for.

I find it odd that these bags continue to prove so popular, even though they achieved infamy as bags of useless crap many years ago. I’ve often heard regular attendees explain to first time visitors that they should avoid the Big Bag and just pick up the mini fold-out guide, yet I’ve seen these very same regulars at the bag pick-up point the next year.

Ritual stupidity

They and countless others go through a strange SXSW ritual. After getting their registration badge, they head down to the bag collection point and sneak round the curtain to snap a picture of the sea of bags (seemingly unable to recognise the wastefulness). Upon receiving the bag, they proceed to then throw out any flyers not of interest to them, before taking the remaining items back to their hotel (the bags being too heavy to carry around for any length of time). The bag is then forgotten until it’s found at the bottom of the suitcase upon returning home.

This year the SXSW bag contains a small camera bag made by Crumpler, which seems excuse enough for some to continue this ritual stupidity. You probably already have a camera bag, and chances are your camera will either be too big or small for it to be of any use. Yet it’s enough to persuade those who might not have picked up the bag to do so this year, for fear of missing out. This trend is reflected in a number of other ‘viral’ items such as the phone sock and ‘Internet All Star’ trading cards.

These free ‘gifts’ help contribute to the favourable attitude people have towards swag. Regardless of the actual value and usefulness of these items, they are perceived as a positive gains as they cost nothing to acquire. Whilst this may be true in a monetary sense, nothing is without cost, and ultimately it’s the environment left paying the price.

Let me get this straight: bags of useless free shit are not cool. It’s about time we started to recognise that.