As anyone who has read my past blogs on environmental issues knows, I believe that eliminating unsolicited direct marketing mail may help reduce the “annoyance factor” some mail recipients experience, but there’s no assurancethat it will improve the environment.”

I have been concerned that if some of those individuals who stop receiving unsolicited mail get into their automobiles and buy an item at a retail store that they would ordered through a direct mail solicitation, the environment is worse off. Until I attended the recent Center for Research on Regulated Industries Conference, I did not have data to support my point. Now I do.

What I learned is that the carbon footprint of an automobile using an internal combustion engine in city or suburban driving going to and from a retail store is roughly 450 grams of carbon dioxide for every mile traveled. Preparing, transporting, and delivering a piece of direct marketing mail, including the work of converting trees to paper, results in approximately 70 grams of carbon dioxide. Therefore, if we were to eliminate 100 pieces of unsolicited marketing mail, and assume no substitute form of advertising that would generate carbon dioxide emissions, the result would be the elimination of 7000 grams of carbon dioxide. There is a small amount of carbon dioxide emission from the shipping out of the item by the postal service or a common carrier, but that carbon footprint is relatively small. This data was obtained from an economist who spoke at the conference, Larry Buc, in response to a question I asked.

What would happen to those 100 people not receiving the mail? Some would simply not shop at all for the item for which the direct mail solicitation was sent. Others would learn about it through the alternative form of advertising the marketer selected. Some would seek out a web site to shop for the item, such as a Google search effort, which, by the way, would have a substantial carbon dioxide emission resulting from the electricity consumed at the data centers containing the web site, at the routers transmitting the web site data to the shopper, and at the shopper’s own computer.

However, some would obtain the item at a retail store. If only one shopper of the 100 did a round trip in an automobile, the carbon dioxide emission would exceed the total for the 100 pieces of mail all by itself if the round trip exceeded 17 miles, i.e. 8.5 miles each way. When you add in the potential carbon footprint from the other potential choices, the only way in which eliminating 100 pieces of mail is a good environmental outcome is to assume that no one drives to a retail store and that most of the individuals do not otherwise attempt to acquire the item that was the subject of the solicitation.

More work has to be done to model out the impacts of eliminating unsolicited direct marketing mail, and, clearly, if someone has no intention of buying the item solicited from any source at any time, it makes sense for many reasons to eliminate sending the letter. Therefore, our goal should be to give mail recipients the ability to describe their choices and preferences in as much detail as possible as often as possible.

That is why the Direct Marketing Association Mail Preference Service is the best choice for people. It is the most sophisticated and granular consumer choice system in place, and, unlike the other systems, it recognizes the complexity and confusion that surrounds some consumer choices.