A week ago, I returned from a visit to NYC where I attended the BlogHer 2012 conference. As I do before any trip, I printed out my handy packing list and meticulously crossed things off as they entered the suitcase staging zone (a.k.a. the floor of my office). I was prepared for almost everything, including layers to ward off the chill of air conditioning, a thermal mug to keep my morning tea warm and my afternoon thirst trash-free, and a pen with an extra refill for all the notes I anticipated taking in the breakout sessions. I say almost everything because the one thing I was unprepared for was unpackable. It looked like this:

The first glance of a sponsor booth overwhelmed me – visually, physically, environmentally, and  any other appropriate word that ends in ly. And yes, the photos above highlight a certain company’s wares in the form of a classroom constructed with bleach and anti-bacterial wipes, complete with toilet brush desks! How many repetitions of “no, no, NO!” do you think were running through my brain? And no, they weren’t handing free wipes or bowl scrubbies to conference attendees.

Worry not! Cleaning supplies did abound from the company that provided each and every attendee with their very own 22oz bottle of a multi-purpose cleanser in the official conference swag bag. I’m curious to know how many people packed a bottle of the product in the photo to the left in their luggage for the flight home.

I was filled with immense repulsion and curiosity about the swag that lured my fella bloggers to the expo halls in droves. Recognizing this as an  opportunity to witness and experience the part of consumerism I regularly avoid, a conscious shift into observer mode took over. I needed something  to make this feature of the conference tolerable, and having a like-minded friend along for the self-guided swag tours was key.

There were booths bedecked with kid-centric icons and company reps dressed up in costumes ranging from the milkman to a banana to a Dr. Seuss character. The irony of an environmental icon handing out reusable plastic-based totes bedecked with his likeness was lost to many.

One could snack, sip and lip-smack their way through all the edibles. S’more-making stations in a faux-backyard environment in a hotel suite were ingenious and popular. Yogurt, juice smoothies, power bars, meat thingies, coffees, and more were available throughout the day. Aside from rescuing a piece of s’more-destined chocolate for a quick pick-me-up, I opted against all the edible samples as they produced one of my least favorite side-effects of these events: landfill-destined trash.

Did anyone else notice the messages urging us gals
to stay youthful and to ponder our perspectives on aging?

How about the commonality shared by
a computer technology company and a liqueur company?

There was so much to see that I’m glad I wasn’t tempted to sit down for my once every five years manicure. Besides, there was a handy press-on nail kit in the swag bag! Hot pink or glitterized plastic nails anyone? Depending on how you chose to curate your swag, the themes and combinations were endless.

Toothpaste, books, “personal massagers,” t-shirts, battery-powered candles, home and office organizing tools of the physical and virtual variety, gratitude journals, lip balms, reusable bags (only one US-made of 100% cotton) and more were offered and passed to attendees like candy at Halloween. I’ll admit that the sight of one particular (and very unexpected) vendor made me squeal with glee: a maker of homeopathic remedies. I was dancing inside when the company rep handed me a box each of arnica gel and an anti-flu remedy. Yippee. That exchange alone made the journey into swagville kind of worth it. Okay, so yeah, I can see the lure of any given expo if more of the vendors were on my wavelength and in alignment with my values.

Now remember, this was a conference for bloggers, and one of my Bay Area blogging friends, Beth Terry, was worth the visit to the expo where she signed and sold her fabulous book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. Here’s Beth and one of my new blogger friends at the signing…

This particular post seems as good a place as any to mention my plastic-free tip that Beth included in her book. The sidebar on page 304 reads, “Just say no to freebies at expos and conferences. You’ll be amazed at how much less plastic waste (and otherwise) comes into your home, and how much lighter your luggage will be!”

So what was the most perfect “swag” that came home with me? Small enough to fit into my back pocket and destined for the recycle bin when I’m finished with them is the stack of business cards from the wide array of bloggers I met over the course of three days. These are women from as far afield as Rio de Janiero and Zimbabwe, to as near as across the bay or the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These are women who are survivors of trauma such as postpartum psychosis, the loss of a child, and the shooting rampage in Tucson. These are women who are exploring identity, racial, political and social justice issues, and women who are simply blogging for the love of it. The conversations we shared, the cards we exchanged, and now the friendships we are forming are the greatest takeaways of all.

cross-posted at Daily Kos