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Commentary: All these corporate greeting cards and presents are not gifts. They're spam

Market forces may be driving the private sector into the arms of climate action. But our animal spirits are stuck in the first industrial revolution.

Commentary: All these corporate greeting cards and presents are not gifts. They're spam

Corporate gifts and greeting cards are pointless. (Graphic: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: I opened a huge envelope on Friday (Dec 13) containing what is now my fourth 2020 desk calendar and a greeting card.

Why do I need four desk calendars? Why do I need ANY? I don’t.

Like most people, the only calendar I use resides on my smartphone and is synced to my work emails and personal schedule.

But now I’m confronted with a huge moral dilemma pondering what to do with a gift like this, which was sent by a company with which I have had intermittent contact. 

Frankly, the best case scenario is – where possible – to put them straight into the newsroom’s recycling bins. But some of these calendar have pages coated in plastic, making them tough to recycle.

However, a better solution would be for the givers not to send such wasteful items in the first place. After all, not only are things such as desk calendars largely redundant, they also rarely have the desired effect of creating a positive feeling about the companies which send them.

Nothing screams thoughtlessness like a pre-fabricated, mass-printed card that is as personal as the dozens of flyers that come through our mail boxes. 

There wasn’t even a signature or a handwritten anything on the card accompanying the calendar.

I get it. There’s a huge list of Christmas greeting cards to get through, so why not leverage technology to reap economies of scale and let Microsoft Excel unshackle you from the actual need to think about something to write? 

The power of automation has freed us from the mundane humdrum of meaningless tasks and surely doing up that corporate Christmas gift list must be the first to go.

A woman who's incredibly frustrated. (Photo: Unsplash)


Yes, it is that most wonderful time of the year again isn’t it?

Where pantries and snack corners in offices and workplaces will be filled with mostly unwanted gifts and suspiciously packaged foods. As the holiday season progresses, those areas will start to overflow, provoking the boss to send out a passive-aggressive office email implying we’ve all been barbarians and asking for the scourge to be cleaned out.

And as the pile of goodies grows, so the identities of the companies that sent them will be forgotten – if they’re even registered in the first place.

This nightmare isn’t unique to Christmas. Every Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, this ghoulish cycle haunts us like an old photo post with the ex that Facebook keeps reminding you about every year.

The Mid-Autumn festival is perhaps the worst when it comes to meaningless corporate gifts that create mountains of waste.

READ: Elaborate mooncake packaging difficult to recycle and damaging to the environment, experts say

Stalls selling mooncakes at a shopping mall in Singapore. (File Photo: Ang Hwee Min)

With the packaging getting ever more fancy, it fills me with horror when I see how each mooncake is sometimes wrapped in plastic, placed inside a plastic tray, which sits inside an individual cardboard container, which is stacked inside an even bigger cardboard box.

Corporate gift buyers should know that I’m not impressed by such intricate packaging – I’m appalled by it.


It escapes me why so many companies still choose to participate in this annual mindless ritual of holiday gift-giving.

NUS Business School Assistant Professor Adelle Yang once suggested we buy gifts to wow the recipients and create a good impression of ourselves. This gift-as-self-advertisement argument seems like a sensible explanation that extends to organisations.

Understandably, corporate protocol dictates the primacy of form and custom, sometimes over substance. And so the number of recipients can only get larger over time.

The thinking usually goes: We’ve been doing this for years so what if someone notices that we’ve dropped them from our Christmas gift list and gets offended?

Unless you’re giving out Apple iPhone 11s (no one is, I checked), it’s safe to assume few will pick up on that.

READ: Commentary: why Apple users remain incredibly loyal

Apple's new iPhone 11 phones are displayed at the Apple Store in Hong Kong. (File photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)


Much has been said about our profligate consumerism and the incredible amount of waste that goes to landfills, and yet this practice persists.

Look, I’m no Greta Thunberg but there’s something inconsistent about corporate norms when profit-driven companies say they want to honour the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and factor emissions into investment decisions, yet carry on with useless gift-giving.

Market forces may be driving the private sector into the arms of climate action. But our animal spirits are stuck in the first industrial revolution.

Sadly, it’s not just the private sector which seems obsessed with conspicuous displays of largesse. Some of the biggest and most wasteful gifts I received were from climate change and environment-related organisations. I also get gifts from public-sector entities.

Hopefully, Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli talking this week about how the existential challenge of climate change requires global action will give some corporate gift-givers pause for thought.

This broader culture of gift-giving waste that needs serious rethinking includes burgeoning National Day Parade funpacks and ballooning conference welcome packs – gestures that aim to make you feel good about attending an event but which follow you home like a bad hangover after one too many glasses of prosecco and sits in your living room like an ugly wine stain.

We’ve passed the Resource Sustainability Bill but it looks like our Christmas greetings and gifts bill is something we need to look closer at.

READ: Commentary: When that funpack becomes too much fun for our planet

The reusable funpack for NDP 2019. (Photo: Corine Tiah)


Economist Joel Waldfogel at the US National Bureau of Economic Research has been urging us to quit gift-giving for decades.

His 1993 groundbreaking research even shows there’s a huge deadweight loss when we buy presents for others. And that’s for people in our lives we really like.

If not gifts, then what? Economists suggest the best present is cash but I doubt outright bribery is on anyone’s wish list. Santa Claus may not be watching but CPIB will be.

How about a nice email of a few lines? As a writer, I relish it when people spend time selecting words to express appreciation.

If one really insists on a gesture, why not donate to a worthy cause in someone’s name? At least the money will be put to good use.

Otherwise, I say that no gift and no card is the best way to go.

Just please stop throwing all these things in my general direction. It’s not gifting. It’s spamming.

Lin Suling is executive editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees the Commentary section and the new Heart of the Matter podcast.

Source: CNA/sl(db)


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