Making a visible difference

The direct marketing industry must work harder than others to prove its green credentials because the waste it produces is very visible, unlike TV advertising’s carbon footprint. By David Reed

With climate change high on the public agenda, there has never been a better time to reduce natural resource consumption, carbon emissions and waste. But for the direct marketing industry – with its highly visible physical outputs in the form of direct mail and door drops – that is going to require some innovative thinking.

Usually, a marketer in need of advice looks no further than their incumbent agency and suppliers. With the attempt to make DM more sustainable, however, things are a little harder.

As head of environmental solutions at Royal Mail, Matthew Neilson has few industry peers. Although the Royal Mail, like most of the household names who use it to deliver their direct mail, has a clearly worked out policy as part of its corporate and social responsibility strategy, Neilson says the problem is that “marketing finds it difficult to translate that into action and change what it does”.

Working with carbon neutral suppliers, using sustainable raw materials and ensuring that good targeting reduces wasted output are the easy parts.

As one of the three key stakeholders that Royal Mail needs to persuade of the potential for direct mail to be green, business owners are by and large already on board. Harder to convince are the two other groups involved – Government and consumers. Both of these tend to see the issue for DM solely in terms of waste items being sent to landfill.

“The easy answer for them is to say, ‘switch it all off’. That is what I find frustrating because, at the moment, we can’t say whether direct mail is better or worse than email or any other medium,” he says.

For all the evident use of energy and materials involved in the production and distribution of direct mail, this does not make other forms of marketing automatically greener choices. It may just be that their own contribution to environmental damage is less visible.

“Too few people are calculating the whole process,” says Ian Cruickshank, head of direct and digital at Billington Cartmell and formerly managing partner at Draftfcb. “And while direct mail is a tangible and visible waste, nobody sees the carbon impact of the flight behind the TV shoot in Brazil.”

Like much of the debate about who is the biggest culprit for climate change, much depends on where you begin and end accounting for it.

Direct mail is first in the firing line because the DM industry decided early on to stand up and be counted, not least by signing a voluntary producer’s responsibility agreement with the Government in 2003.

The targets set out in this are really beginning to bite. At their heart is the increase in the volume of direct mail that goes to be recycled, rather than into landfill. The first target of 30% by 2005 was just about achieved, but things are about to get much harder with a target of 55% by 2009.

small number”There is every indication that we are not making changes quickly enough,” says Robert Keitch, director of media channel development at the Direct Marketing Association. Like Neilson, he is one of that small number of marketers charged with overseeing the greening of DM.

As a trained environmental scientist, Keitch notes: “The issue is not helped by the language we use about climate change, for example that a crisp packet has a 32g carbon footprint. What does that mean?”The DMA is close to producing a Publicly Available Standard for sustainable direct marketing that will become one of the cornerstone documents for how brands can match their marketing actions to their corporate social responsibility policies. The PAS will detail all the steps necessary to reduce waste, energy and resource consumption.

It will also give marketers a new way to demonstrate to consumers that they are doing everything possible to reduce their environmental footprint. Just as the DMA’s own logo became a badge of integrity on campaigns over a decade ago, PAS-compliant imprints could help to draw the sting out of consumer criticism.

draconian measuresThis could be vital if the DM industry is to avoid draconian measures and legislation. “DM is an easy target and wrongly so,” says Amanda Phillips, ceo of Proximity London and chair of the IPA’s DM Futures Group, which has set up a working party on sustainability. Few viewers worry about the 50 tonnes of carbon produced during a TV commercial shoot, but will complain to their MP if a wrongly addressed mailshot comes through their door.

She acknowledges the 78,000 tonnes of direct mail still going into landfill, but says the first place to start tackling the problem is close to home. “Before advising clients, we have to look at our own business as agencies.” v

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