Brand fill is a big issue in the promo industry. While this isn’t anything new, industry pros are shining a brighter light on it because of its negative impact on Mother Earth—and the promotional industry’s reputation.

Even if you’re new to the term “brand fill,” you’re probably aware of the problem it describes. Brand fill is a reference to the cheap, useless and unwanted merch that’s given out to people, which usually just ends up getting thrown away and building up landfills – contributing to the ongoing pollution of our planet. 

“One way to help prevent cheap T-shirts’ from becoming brand fill is simple. We educate our customers on the overall ROI of spending a little bit more money up front on a better-quality shirt.”

Megan Erber, Outside Sales Manager at S&S Activewear

And of course, the demand for these low-hanging-fruit products perpetuates the cycle. That includes fast fashion’s manufacturing process that only adds to the negative effects on the environment. (And we’ve watched H&M and Forever 21 get torched in the media for their fast fashion manufacturing practices.)

On the PromoKitchen podcast, Jamie Mair, chief growth officer at Spector & Co, said that “People see ‘branded stuff’ as junk, because there’s too much brand fill that’s being made and given out. We should be focused on selling products with purpose. Instead, there’s so much brand fill and fast fashion that it’s irresponsible, and not sustainable. We clearly see the implications in the supply chain and environmentally.”

The Sobering Stats

Because of Earth Day, April is a great time for distributors and decorators to start meaningful conversations with their clients about more thoughtful giveaways.

“One way to help prevent cheap T-shirts’ from becoming brand fill is simple,” says Megan Erber, Outside Sales Manager at S&S Activewear. “We educate our customers on the overall ROI of spending a little bit more money up front on a “better quality” shirt, with a better fabrication, or one that’s built to hold an imprint at its fullest capacity.”

Before we take a look at some ways you can start having brand fill conversations with your clients, consider these stats:

  • The volume of clothing Americans throw away annually doubled in the last 20 years, from 7 million to 14 million tons.
  • In 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste went into landfills, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Textiles can take up to 200 years (or longer) to decompose in landfills.
  • Many of your clients might be shocked to learn that 84% of clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators, the EPA also reports.
  • Finally, according to the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt, which might immediately end up getting tossed.

5 Steps to Killing Brand Fill

1. Challenge your own idea of sustainability.

Mair points out that it’s easy to get caught up in getting a big order from a new client, and then lose focus on the implications of the products the buyer requested. 

“Where will the product end up? Is this ‘brand fill’ or is this a quality product that will get the results your client wants?”

Jamie Mair, Chief Growth Officer at Spector & Co

For example, you might think it’s great that you’re selling eco-friendly products, but you haven’t considered the packaging. “Yes, it could be an eco-friendly product, but then it’s packed inside a plastic bag, and inside a non-recyclable box,” Mair says. “The marketing of an eco-product makes sense, but the practicality of how it’s produced, packaged or delivered defeats the eco aspect.”

Upfront, it’s also important to decide whether a “cheap” product will really achieve your client’s marketing goals. “Pause and ask, ‘What’s the outcome of this?’’ Mair says. “Where will the product end up? Is this ‘brand fill’ or is this a quality product that will get the results your client wants?”

Mair acknowledges that “sustainability” is a complex subject: “It goes back to how do you define sustainability? If it’s, ‘Is this a sustainable process,’ then it’s not just, ‘Is this product eco-friendly?’”

2. Ask your apparel mills for their top product recommendations, and sustainable practices.

Regularly check in with your supplier reps to learn about their new sustainable style options. Then, drill down to their fabrications, and how their garments are made and packaged. “Even if a product is made from recycled materials, the manufacturing process behind obtaining those materials might not have been so sustainable,” Erber says. 

3. Tell your supplier reps you want more sustainability, please.

It’s also important to let apparel mills and hard goods suppliers know that you want to give your clients end-to-end sustainable products, otherwise we’re still at status quo. “If there’s a bad TV spot or social media ad, no one’s running to the recycling bin—you just wasted some mental horsepower,” Mair says. “But brand fill has a whole other negative impact. Until we commit to changing things, we’ll keep following the path of least resistance as an industry. As serious as we are about pushing orders efficiently, we need to get serious about whether we’re making and selling products that matter.”

3. Ask your apparel mills, suppliers or distributors for resources.

You can rely on your apparel reps here as well. At the style level, Erber helps her distributor and decorator clients get clear on who’s buying the premium garments, why they’re buying them and how to sell to that market. “Then, I put the resources, samples and marketing collateral into their hands, so they have the confidence to then educate their customers, on their overall ROI,” she says. 

Erber also advises distributors and decorators not to ignore less-expensive garments, since many will satisfy that “not-brand-fill” requirement. “Lots of garments aren’t just value T-shirts—because we still have basic brands that take a sustainable approach, and they’re trying to make an impact,” she says.

4. Talk to (and educate) your buyers.

Start conversations, where you tell your prospects and clients about these brand fill issues, and how it’s way more beneficial to choose better-quality products that won’t get tossed. Translation: People will wear and use premium decorated styles way more, resulting in more brand impressions for your client and fewer cheap tees in a landfill. 

“Always ask your buyer what their end-game is,” Erber says. “Do they just want to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks? Or do they want to see an actual ROI with proven methods of turning a ‘promotional product’ into a lifetime brand. Either way, don’t be afraid to have the conversation with your client.”

Your goal? Broaden your clients’ definition of sustainability. “They’ll say, ‘Yes, as a brand we want to have less ancillary packaging,’ but then it’s just lip service,” Mair says. “Our goal should be to 100% get our clients to the best solution. It’s really about change management, because we’ve been doing things the same way for a long time.” 

Even if your client isn’t ready to choose a more premium garment on their current order, maybe because of timing or budget concerns, hopefully, they’ll at least have a more open mind, when you bring up the topic on their next order. “They’ll know you truly have their best interests in mind,” Erber says. 

5. Pitch premium products you’re excited about.

You probably don’t want your distributorship or decorating firm to be known as just another promo order-taker. Instead, what if your clients viewed you as a trusted advisor of branded products that they’d get the best ROI on? One way to do that is to share with them, which premium or good-quality products you love the most. 

For example, Erber loves Independent Trading Co.’s Legend – Premium Heavyweight Cross-Grain Hooded Sweatshirt (IND5000P). “Because of this oversized hoodie’s 100% cotton face, it holds an amazing DTG design or screen-printing design,” she says. “And with the heavyweight fleece, embroidery options can really elevate this premium piece into a lifestyle brand.”

Brands with major sustainable clout.

Two of the biggest brands that we currently stock, have been getting major recognition on the world stage for their sustainability and CSR efforts. Here’s a few highlights of them:

HanesBrands was recognized as one of the “2021 World’s Most Ethical Companies” by Ethisphere, a global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business practices. The mill is one of only two apparel manufacturers being recognized among 135 companies spanning 22 countries and representing 47 industries. The company was also recently named one of the 100 most sustainable companies in the nation for the second year by Barron’s and earned a leadership level A score, following two years at A-, in the CDP 2020 Climate Change Report. HBI (Hanesbrand Inc.) is also the only apparel company in history to earn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award”.

You may also have heard that Hanes launched a U.S.-grown cotton initiative to raise sustainability awareness among distributors and decorators. As part of this launch, the Hanes’ Printwear group said its Beefy-T is being manufactured from 100% U.S.-grown cotton. According to the U.S Cotton Council of America, farmers have come a long way in growing sustainable cotton by: 

  • reducing soil erosion by 35%
  • decreasing water use by more than 50%
  • cutting energy use by more than 50%
  • lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent. 

Hanes even developed a digital toolkit to help printers and PPDs inform customers about the benefits of U.S.-grown cotton.

Gildan is also a fan favorite because of its sustainable manufacturing processes and commitment to responsible practices. In fact, Gildan recently placed 32nd overall among The Wall Street Journal’s ranking of the Top 100 Most Sustainably Managed Companies in the world. Gildan was second among only three apparel companies included in this top 100 ranking and was also the only North American apparel company on the list. The apparel manufacturer also claimed the sixth spot among the top 10 global companies for innovation in its business model. In 2019, Gildan reached the leadership level on CDP’s 2019 scores for corporate transparency and action on climate change and maintained that level in 2020. (Check out our blog, “The Sustainable Story You Didn’t Know about Gildan” for more of this brand’s story.)

The start of our sustainability story.

At S&S, we also share our sustainability efforts with distributor and decorator customers to show how we’re protecting the environment. “While we’re not a manufacturer and can’t mitigate our footprint in that way, our footprint is in our warehousing, so our sustainability focus has been on solar energy,” Erber says. “We’ve installed 2,456 high-performance solar panels across our facilities nationwide. These panels keep us from being powered by fossil fuel energy that would’ve expelled the equivalent of more than 4 million pounds of CO2 a year, into our atmosphere. ( The equivalent of what the average car might expel after driving 4.3 million miles ). We’re also taking additional sustainable steps, across our distribution centers and offices, which include installing water-refilling and recycling stations, as well as reusing packing boxes to reduce cardboard waste.”

Ultimately, industry pros like Erber and Mair think the problem of brand fill needs to be faced head on by the industry as a whole. “If we wait for end-users to stop requesting brand fill items, we’ll get left behind,” Mair says. “As an industry, we need to set standards around sustainability, packaging and brand fill to disseminate and share across an end-user base from a position or authority and professionalism. This topic should come up in more conversations with your clients and among larger audiences at trade shows.”

Ultimately, we should pitch products with purpose to clients, branded products that end-users will value and keep. “If you could bottle this recipe for branded merch, that it’s a compelling product, made and packaged responsibly and sustainably, we’d all be better off,” Mair says.

One thought on “What’s “Brand Fill” and How It Affects You and Your Client’s Bottom Line

  1. This is a great article. Would you happen to have one a little more pointed directly from the distributor to client. I would love to pass this on to my clients.
    Or a video with the content so we can post on social media.

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