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Against swag

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It’s October, and recruiting season is in full swing — and with it, a slew of crowded campus career fairs. Students arrive in droves to fields of white tents and peppy recruiters, trading in stacks of resumes for bags of swag.

A t-shirt, a duffel bag, a Bluetooth speaker. For some students, getting quality company merch is more of a reason to attend a fair than the jobs themselves. Humanities majors masquerade as CS students to catch a startup’s roaming eyes. Expert collectors don’t even bother feigning interest — they prefer a grab-and-go strategy, dignity be damned. After the fun is over, it’s common to overhear conversations among students comparing their stash, as giddy as kids counting candy on Halloween night. 

This used to feel like an innocuous game, a fun way to relieve the stress of recruiting season. But when I zoom out, I can’t help but feel deep discomfort. The Bay Area experiences a growing homeless population while housing many of the most highly valued companies in the world. Stanford University, far from an antidote to these problems, wields its power to refuse to build affordable housing and usher in the children of the one percent.

A CS student attending multiple career fairs a year — plus industry conferences, interviews and summer internships — will end up picking up far more logo-laden merchandise than they could ever make use of. It’s not all useless knick knacks, either. Companies are spending huge sums of money to give away really nice stuff at these events: items like backpacks, socks, water bottles and beanies. You know, the kinds of things that would be super useful if you were homeless. Maybe even if you were evicted — unjustly — to make room for a crew of new grad software engineers. 

So you can see why it feels cruel to take home a fourth S’well thermos when we’ve all passed the RVs lining El Camino Real, walked by sleeping bags in front of SoMa tech offices and seen the direct impacts of vast economic inequality every time we leave campus. And given that it’s nearly impossible not to be a gentrifier — especially as new grads saddled with debt, especially in expensive areas like San Francisco — saying no to swag seems like the very least we can do.

So what’s next? We (probably) can’t just tell companies to replace their swag budgets with donations to homeless shelters and disaster survivors. But as Stanford students, we can be better about our consumption. When you see free swag on a table, ask yourself a few questions: 

  1. Is this something I actually need? If so, go for it! 
  2. If not, might someone else need it? Common items like clothing, hats, water bottles, bags and flashlights can all be super helpful for people experiencing housing instability. Office supplies are also useful, whether for job applications or school supplies for kids. Check donation wish lists at organizations like LifeMoves or Community Thrift SF to see what’s needed, and find a time to drop off your and your friends’ spare stuff.
  3. If you don’t need the item, and no one else will, consider not taking it! Knick knacks tend to turn into dorm room clutter, which tends to end up in a landfill.

Beyond individual thoughtfulness, I’d love to see coordinated donation drives after major recruiting seasons — much like the end-of-year donation bins at every dorm. Even bigger, Stanford could simply ban swag giveaways as part of a long-term sustainability strategy. It’d be a bold move, but one that saves companies cash while setting a precedent to forgo unnecessary waste.

Finally, Silicon Valley companies may seem greener than most in corporate America, but they have a prolonged habit of hiding the human and environmental impacts of their supply chains and operations. Their growth is inextricable from rising consumption culture, the housing crisis and environmental injustice. And while corporate irresponsibility extends far beyond Stanford’s deluge of free merch, it reminds us that perks and privilege often comes at a cost to the broader community. For now, as individual students, we should stop buying into their pretty-boy swag. 

Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.