When Denise Taschereau opened Fairware in 2005, she had absolutely no business experience. “We had to Google what a P.O. was,” Taschereau says. “We just had this idea that we could change how people get merch, the kind of merch they get and how that merch could reflect their values. We had the business idea, but no idea as to how to actually do it.”

Today, Taschereau still runs Fairware with her co-founder and partner, Sarah White. “It was a big risk, but I am eternally grateful I made that leap,” she says.

Taschereau got the idea for Fairware while working as the community and sustainability director for Canada’s largest outdoor retailer. “I was trying to find merchandise for that brand, and I couldn’t find organic cotton t-shirts or lip balms without parabens, or essentially, products that aligned with the values of the brand that I worked for.”

Taschereau says she found a market gap. “Great brands were giving away terrible things,” Taschereau says. “I think the best businesses start when you see a true gap in the marketplace, and that’s what we saw. In 2005, there were very few people in our industry looking at sustainability as a strategic business opportunity. We came in with the idea that sustainability was a strategic endeavor, and we were going to leverage our merchandise to do that for our clients.”

Seeing the promo industry rapidly evolve with sustainability has been incredible, Taschereau says. “In some ways, it’s unbelievable. One specific way I’ve seen the movement change is, historically, sustainability in our industry was really focused on just the products. Does it have recycled content? Or, it would be focused on philanthropy. Does it have a giveback portion?

“The biggest wholesale shift is it is now about how companies approach their entire operations. Sustainability has moved from a commodity or a discreet act, like donating to a community, to simply how you run your business.”

Taschereau says there are two reasons why sustainability is critical for the promo industry. First, there’s the industry’s reputation. “Our industry has a reputation problem,” Taschereau says. “It doesn’t hold its rightful place in the hierarchy of marketing tools by brands. I think it’s changing a little bit right now. But I would say sustainability is a way to start to regain and rebuild our reputation as a viable and important part of a marketing strategy. As we build credibility, as people see that the product is well-made, adds value to campaigns and isn’t destined for the landfill, our industry as a whole will be lifted up.”

Secondly, there’s our need for digital transformation. “Sustainability is where a lot of innovation is happening. There is an enormous amount of innovation happening in chemical management, textiles, but most importantly, technology. Sustainability is driving systems for traceability, so you can follow the lifecycle of a product all by scanning a barcode.

“That’s incredible technology, and a lot of that innovation is happening through the lens of sustainability. That’s a bandwagon we want to get on. That’s the face we want to show the world—that we are progressive, innovative and sustainable as an industry.”

In 2010, Fairware became a Certified B Corp, one of the first in Canada. The company is also a Certified B Corp in the U.S. “It’s a third-party framework and certification of businesses trying to drive change using their business model. It’s businesses trying to do good. It’s a third-party assessment to say you’re actually walking the talk. Your company is doing what you say you’re doing.”

To remain leaders in sustainability, Fairware relies on its partnerships. “We are constantly looking at the companies we admire,” Taschereau says. “We work with some of the most amazing clients in the world. We have the opportunity to talk to brands like Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia about what they’re working on and how our merchandise can help them drive their impact agenda. So, we are constantly learning from and being inspired by them. Our clients hold us accountable and teach us a lot.”

For businesses looking to drive change, Taschereau says thinking of potential impact is critical. “Making decisions where you think about the impact on your team, community or the supply chain is what makes a business a force for good,” she says. “You are driving change in everything you do. You are showing people that you can run a profitable company and still care about community, employees or supply chain. For us, it’s really about setting an example.”

Another way Fairware sets an example is by lending its voice. “We do advocacy on the issues that are important to us. It’s one thing for us to be a living-wage employer, but for Fairware, we’ll also go on record encouraging our province to raise minimum wage. We are actually using our voice politically as business leaders to try and drive change more systemically.”

Taschereau hopes the industry will continue to evolve with sustainability, CSR and digital transformation. “CSR and sustainability are what is going to put us on the map,” Taschereau says. “It’s what every brand is doing right now, and if we’re not doing it, it’s going to be hard for us enable the marketing campaigns of the world’s greatest brands.

“Whether it’s materials or diversity, these are all important issues to the brands that are running our economies, and our industry lifts those brands up through marketing merchandise. If we don’t understand sustainability, we’ll be left behind. They will not choose our medium. They’ll choose something else if we can’t line up with what they’re trying to achieve.”

The evolution of client demands for CSR and sustainability, as well as the need for digital transformation all made the timing right for Taschereau to challenge for a seat on the PPAI Board of Directors in last year’s election. She says, “It’s an incredible moment in time to build an Association that is resilient, nimble and ready for what the future holds.” Her seat on the board runs until 2026.

Given her background running a mid-size distributor, Taschereau brings the perspective of most industry companies with her to the PPAI boardroom. “If I look back on my time as a board member, I’ll be happy if I’ve shaped three outcomes. The first is ensuring the tools and strategies we build are right-sized for smaller suppliers and distributors—they’re the lifeblood of our industry and it’s critical that we all succeed, not just the larger players.

“Second, I hope we have continued the work the Association has done to elevate the reputation and profile of our medium in the larger marketing landscape. Finally, I’ll be thrilled if our industry has a roadmap for corporate social responsibility that our members have embraced and are acting on.”

Kristina Valdez is an associate editor at PPAI.