Profile: Designing For The Planet

Photo above: Green Giftz's new, renovated workspace featuring repurposed barnwood on the walls, along with other recycled materials.

There’s nothing that turns heads more at an awards ceremony than a striking and smartly-designed plaque or trophy. The award, embossed or engraved with the recipient’s name and recognition, becomes a treasured keepsake for years to come. Karen and Lou Scarpino, the founders and owners of distributorship Promotional Impact, DBA Green Giftz, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, increase the backstory of these treasures by using recycled, eco-friendly and repurposed materials, giving new life to used goods.

Green Giftz, which Karen launched in 2007 to focus on green products and campaigns, has been involved in many impactful promotions over the years. One of its acclaimed creations includes environmental leadership awards designed for client Chrysler in 2013, which was then working toward meeting a zero-waste goal. With this target in mind, the Green Giftz team designed awards using submerged timber collected from the bottom of the Great Lakes along with recycled glass. The awards were constructed in Green Giftz’s own woodworking shop using local trade partners, and recycled alloy was used as a design accent.

But the list of impressionable products doesn’t end there. The distributorship has also designed notebooks created from pounds of repurposed blueprint paper for Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction. Using logs gathered from Lake Michigan, leftover timber from a renovation project, and scrap fabric, Green Giftz produced gift boxes, bags, eyeglass pouches, credit card cases and more for Michigan-based furniture designers Haworth and Herman Miller.

Green Giftz works to reduce the waste produced from previous campaigns—banners with old logos that were used once or twice, or notebooks filled with notes. When Karen launched the business, she knew this intent would fill a crucial need in the promotional products industry. Having founded Promotional Impact, an advertising specialties business, in 1992, the Scarpinos weren’t newcomers to promo, but as client requests started evolving, Karen noticed recurring inquiries for greener products with an unusual twist. Eco-friendly materials, she found, were very expensive to purchase, so she circumvented cost by sourcing leftover samples and scraps to create the products herself. “We listened to our clients, who are leaders in the United States Building Council, LEED certification and the sustainability movement,” says Karen. “We saw there was a need, and the kind of product solutions our clients needed didn’t exist.”

Pictured above: The Green Giftz team, from left: Layne Corner, finance and operations; Alex Schrotenboer,
production manager; Kelly Brown, marketing project manager; Lindsay Van Wieren, marketing project manager;
Julie Lawrence, former project manager; Casey Cochran, senior graphic designer; Cassidy Scarpino, project
manager; Karen Scarpino, CEO; and Lou Scarpino, vice president. Not pictured: Kyle Brand, graphic design.

And even though low pricing didn’t necessarily fit Green Giftz’s triple bottom line—people, planet and profits—the environmental impact of the items, coupled with the “wow factor,” makes for an experience far different from similar imported goods. “For our clients who truly want to powerfully impact the gift recipient, the best sustainable solution is locally made or USA-made, which helps the economy of our local community,” says Karen. “Otherwise, a person who truly studies sustainability will look at the carbon footprint of the ‘eco-friendly’ item and argue it was more damaging to the environment due to the distance it traveled.” To provide clients with a full spectrum of available solutions, however, Green Giftz still provides clients with information about similar products manufactured outside the U.S.—and lets the client decide the best choice for themselves.

Green Giftz’s green operations are not limited to products but trickles down into the workspace as well. Three years ago, the Scarpinos purchased the building where Green Giftz is housed and has since crafted a 2,700-square foot space that is “inspiring, welcoming and cozy for our entire team and clients,” Karen says. The “rustic chic” feel of the interior is made using none other than repurposed materials, with salvaged barnwood lining the office walls and an old warehouse door serving as the conference table, which is held up by table legs made from warehouse beams. The office also has a divider plant wall, tons of natural light pouring through the windows, two outdoor green spaces and two logoed bikes for employees, encouraging team members to bike to lunch.

Above, left: Young attendees of Movies On Monroe, enjoying the repurposed cube seating produced by Green Giftz.
Above, right: The environmental leadership award designed for Chrysler in 2013, which was made using submerged
timber and recycled glass.

Along with innovating for the environment, Green Giftz also innovates for social responsibility. In a recent campaign, Green Giftz used old city banners to create custom banner cube chairs for Movies On Monroe, outdoor movies shown in Grand Rapids. “The event venue, previously held on a grassy hill, was forced to move to a parking lot, which didn’t offer comfortable seating solutions,” Karen says. “The cubes were available free of charge on a first come, first served basis for community members.”

And aside from promotional products, Green Giftz helps out the community in other ways. For the past eight years, it has partnered with the Arthritis Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping the more than 50 million adults and 300,000 children living with arthritis, after their son was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at the age of 13. “These kids look fine from the outside, but battle lifelong, debilitating pain,” says Karen. “We hope for a cure, but we’re also involved in the community for support.”

This year, the Scarpinos plan on propelling Green Giftz forward, continuing to show clients the impact of using eco-friendly, recycled goods in their next campaign. On her LinkedIn page, Karen writes, “I’ll accept the worst mistakes as my own and fix them,” in reference to the waste accrued from tossing used materials and items. She finishes with, “But the credit for the wins goes to our team.” The company, which has been operating as a certified, woman-owned business for the past eight years, will continue to work toward becoming a Certified B Corporation, a designation recognizing businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.  


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.

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