I sought out management at Forest Ethics after reading a document titled "Junk Mail's Impact on Global Warming". Having spent my entire career in the retail and catalog marketing industry, I wanted to ask a few questions from a catalog marketing perspective. What follows is an unedited transcript of the interview. Thanks to Mr. Craven, Spokesperson for Forest Ethics' Do Not Mail Campaign, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Question #1: You recently published a document titled “Junk Mail’s Impact on Global Warming”. Could you please summarize the high-level findings and conclusions outlined in the report?
The report (which can be downloaded at http://donotmail.org/downloads/ClimateReport.pdf) finds that the logging, production, printing, inking, distribution, and landfill emissions of direct mail produce fossil fuel emissions surpassing the total emissions of more than 9 million cars, or put another way, the combined emissions of 7 US states.
The report also debunks some common myths about direct mail's environmental impact.
The Americans who have signed our petition (at a rate of about 200 per day) feel that this level of waste cannot be justified by the service it provides, and that more sustainable business practices are not beyond the ingenuity of American businesses.
Question #2: Would you be willing to share examples of brands that have, in your opinion, made a successful transition from print-based advertising to other forms of communication that protect forests? How did they make the transition, and what advice do you have for folks wishing to make this transition?
The question assumes incorrectly that print-based advertising cannot protect forests.
Patagonia, Williams-Sonoma, Victoria's Secret, Dell, Timberland, and Crate & Barrel use paper that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). They use a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content. They do not buy paper harvested from Endangered Forests.
They have committed to reducing their overall paper usage.
These companies have integrated forest protection into their ongoing use of paper and print-based marketing.
Macy's plans to discontinue its Bloomingdale's catalog in 2009 and put more resources behind the lucrative bloomingdales.com. As bloomingdales.com is expected to generate a billion bucks this year, we're very excited to see how they do in the next few.
Question #3: Many catalogers deal with a challenging issue. They have purposely not mailed customers for long periods of time, up to one year, to see what would happen if they stopped mailing catalogs to customers. Many catalogers have learned that as much as eighty percent of the sales they received from the customer would not happen if catalogs were not mailed anymore. What advice would you give to these companies, companies that would like to be responsible citizens, but would struggle to stay in business without catalog advertising?
It's not surprising that removing a tactic without replacing it with something else would result in a decrease in overall retail activity.
As you noted in your blog post of 3/11/08 (http://minethatdata.blogspot.com/2008/03/my-keynote-address-at-catalog.html), in 2003 the average age of a catalog shopper was 50. In 2008 the average age is 60. Past their prime shopping years, this is not the most coveted age group in most retail sectors.
Well below this age demographic a lively consumer economy seems to be chugging along while rarely partaking of the print catalog experience. Unsurprisingly, it is the rapidly maturing internet economy that knows these shoppers- often literally- on a first name basis.
As a small nonprofit, my own organization ForestEthics has worked hard to learn the rapidly changing ways of online communication. It is critical to our success and ongoing viability that we understand where our potential supporters gather online, what words make them 'click', how long they're willing to watch a youtube video, and what attracts them to forests and environmental advocacy.
It's a new world, and sometimes we're barely keeping up, but it simply isn't an option to rely on the methods we used in 1994, or even 2004.
Question #4: What solutions have you come up with to assist the average catalog company employee, an individual earning $15 an hour fielding phone calls, or picking/packing/shipping merchandise, to help them transition jobs in the event that significant changes are forced upon the catalog industry?
Every day restaurant customers decide which restaurants will succeed and which will fail. Those that fail due to poor food, poor service, bad location, or bad luck will be forced to lay off their employees, and those employees will be forced to go in search of more work.
This is supply and demand 101. The customers are not acting callously toward the failing restaurant and its employees. They are simply investing their resources where they will be best rewarded.
Direct mail is different: People don't want it, yet they keep getting more of it. It's as if customers were being grabbed on the sidewalk and forced into a restaurant which they had no desire to patronize.
Increasing environmental consciousness is making customers even less willing to be forced to accept something they don't want. Does the old adage "the customer is always right" still have vitality in the American marketplace?
If so, the customer is most certainly right to worry about direct mail's environmental impacts: in this day and age we cannot afford the unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions of 7 US states. Customers are increasingly unlikely to accept it. Businesses need to adapt.
Question #5: Many folks feel frustrated with the waste of natural resources promoted by print advertising, and for good reason. Conversely, considerable energy, including coal, is consumed by e-commerce, e-mail marketing, online advertising, paid search via Google, and maintenance of websites (including your website). Is it a good idea to increase consumption of coal to decrease consumption of forests?
First, any notion that clicking around minethatdata.com is more carbon intensive than the logging, paper production, printing, distribution and disposal of a catalog or magazine has been thoroughly debunked (link: http://www.forestethics.org/article.php?id=2125).
Paper media by definition consumes trees. E-Commerce currently depends largely on fossil fuels, but could easily be fueled in the future entirely or in part by cleaner, more efficient alternative fuels.
It seems prudent to transition to the more flexible energy option, rather than the one that is almost certainly of high resource impact.
Question #6: If you had the opportunity to sit in an auditorium with every executive from major catalog brands, and you only had five minutes to make a case, what would you say to these individuals to encourage the change you would like to see happen?
Most likely these executives have made it as far as they have because they've been able to weather change and innovate where their competitors couldn't see the opportunity. We would talk about both the change and the opportunities for innovation now available to them.
We would talk about the Big 3 automakers in Detroit and their failure to see the future and then go after it.
We would talk about what their customers want-- not only their regular catalog customers, but also their potential customers out there over the horizon and under the age demographic of the average catalog shopper.
We would talk about environmental challenges that none of us can tackle alone.
Is that over 5 minutes? I guess I'd have to talk fast.