Earlier this month I spent four days at the spring conference of an association of mid-size transactional and direct mail service bureaus. The senior management of the member firms meets a couple times a year to network, share ideas and discuss a variety of business issues. One of the topics this year was the environment and sustainability. While most of those in attendance were interested in ways their companies could begin implementing sustainable business practices, one member took the stance that "green" to him meant money. And that making money was more important than instituting environmentally responsible business practices. In other words, business as usual will work just fine.


I suggested that all types of print providers need to take the initiative to make their company as "green" as possible, first, because it's the right thing to do and second because it's something their customers are coming to expect

In my presentation and in some discussion sessions I suggested that all types of print providers need to take the initiative to make their company as "green" as possible, first, because it's the right thing to do and second because it's something their customers are coming to expect. Several conference attendees said some of their customers were already adopting green initiatives that required them to use suppliers that employed environmentally sound business practices, and as such, were asking what the service bureau was doing along the lines of sustainability. This may indicate that retaining customers could depend on your company's approach to recycling, waste disposal, energy consumption, and much more.

Green Mail

Since these guys were in the print and mail business, I also pointed out what I see as an intersection between the growing movement for sustainable printing practices and the potential for a federally instituted Do Not Mail list. I've known most of these guys nearly a decade, and they don't hesitate to throw rocks when they disagree. Maybe they were just thinking about what I said, but nonetheless, I didn't have to duck.


An assortment of studies have shown that while consumers hate generic direct mail they don't mind --and may even like-- relevant, targeted direct mail

So here's the summary. Typical direct mail, even though it's 99% useless, remains a pretty good way for a company to reach people with its message. The USPS says 103.5 billion third-class opportunities went out in 2007. But because most people really don't like junk mail (a study by the Consumer Research Institute indicates about 44% of junk mail is never even opened) there is a movement to implement a Do Not Mail list. The concept is moving relatively slowly, but is gaining traction from the groundswell of environmental thinking that's sweeping the country. It is the waste factor of direct mail that raises all kinds of environmental flags. Direct mail advocates claim it amounts to only a couple percent of the national waste stream, as if such a paltry contribution justifies business as usual. I have been unable to verify that number, but direct mail waste does account for some 5-6 million of tons of paper annually. And there is no question that if direct mail is curtailed by the convergence of Do Not Mail legislation and sustainability issues, the direct mail business (and printing) will be in deep yogurt. But there's a way to avoid this.

An assortment of studies have shown that while consumers hate generic direct mail they don't mind --and may even like-- relevant, targeted direct mail. So how about we use the technology at hand? If we are to avoid having some Draconian Do Not Mail list foisted upon us, and at the same time make our industry more environmentally sustainable, we need an active, self-monitoring effort to reduce the amount of direct mail. This means making every piece of mail sent out more targeted, timely and relevant to the recipient --no more spray and pray mailings. It will ultimately mean sending out less mail, but what does go out will deliver better results. That puts less mail into the waste stream, uses fewer resources from tree to trash and makes direct mail more sustainable. And more profitable for the company paying for the mailing.

Direct mailers with a narrow business model built on quantity rather than quality don't buy this, saying their clients aren't interested or that such a strategy won't deliver enough "green" to their wallets. And after all, their approach has worked for a long time. But the sun is setting on it. I also spent a lot of time this month talking with a number of printers who no longer call themselves printers, despite having a mix of offset and digital presses feeding a mailroom full of inserting equipment. I found these "integrated marketing services firms" (or some similar term) largely disinterested in the printer's metric of the actual cost of a page coming off their digital presses. It doesn’t matter all that much, they told me. Instead they charge for services such as data mining, graphic design, variable data printing, data analytics, and fulfillment --and enjoy higher profits. Printing, say most of them, is only a small part of the total invoice they send their customers. They say more targeted runs, perhaps with personalized URLs, are much more effective and generate double digit response rates on much shorter print runs. Customers pay and come back for more because the results are there. It's direct mail that works.

I recognize there are many details that enlarge this topic, but at the confluence of sustainability and direct mail, we can address an important challenge facing our industry and the environment by using the technology we have at our disposal. We can be more environmentally responsible, change the face of direct mail and by doing so prevent more governmental regulation from wreaking havoc on the industry. Organizations such as DMA and PIA/GATF, as well as equipment vendors like HP, Kodak and Xerox all have tools and training available to help direct mailers be greener and more efficient through the use of digital printing technology. The time has come to use all the resources available to change how direct mail works.

The Pollution Fee

You've probably heard of this. It's the idea of trading or buying carbon credits, which advocates assure us will save the planet. Sure it will. If you believe that, let me tell you about a bridge I have in Brooklyn. . .

In the pantheon of smoke and mirror scams dreamed up in the past 10,000 years of civilization, carbon trading makes Ponzi schemes, multi-level marketing and three-card monte look like reasonable business models. Buying carbon credits means you add up all the bad stuff your business generates in a given period to form a carbon footprint of your business. It can include waste water and paper, toner, ink, used fountain solution, electricity, trucking, heating and cooling, using new instead of recycled papers, plates and blankets, atmospheric emissions, solvents, running less efficient print engines, you name it. This gives you a total value, for which you buy carbon credits, with the money you spend theoretically going to planting trees and other environmentally positive activities that supposedly offset your bad behavior. For example, this month's issue of Discover magazine was printed conventionally but it's publisher, Hachette-Filipacchi, bought about $4,500 worth of carbon credits so they could say their "Earth month" issue was carbon neutral. Sorry, but I'm not buying it. They still produced the magazine and shipped it all over the country, sometimes with less than admirable efficiency, but they think their pollution fee makes it okay.

Sure, it is possible to make all kinds of arguments for how this works, but in my opinion it's just a way to feel good about being bad. It's like feeling virtuous because you drive a Prius 12 miles to work in traffic but take off every weekend in your Hummer towing a boat that guzzles 100 gallons of gas for a day's water skiing.

Instead of buying carbon credits so you can feel good about yourself and creating the impression of being green, a better approach would be to use the money to show customers how to create more effective direct mail so they can send out less but get a better return, encourage the use of more recycled stocks, make long-term improvements to your business's carbon footprint, and lead by example instead of illusion.

All of us are feeling the pinch of higher fuel costs, a recessionary economy and less than optimal business conditions. And we are also wondering about how our lifestyles are affecting our planet and if what we do really matters. We in the printing industry have the opportunity to change the way our industry works. From paper manufacturing to print and mail to the waste stream, printing has not exactly been a poster child for environmental responsibility. But now, in a time when change can really make a difference, we have the opportunity to join together and make our industry work differently, pollute less, operate more efficiently and leave less of a footprint behind. Look at all you can do to change the way your own business operates. Few companies can afford to make massive changes, but even small changes made by many can have a significant impact on our world. What can you do?