June 19, 2015

Do Not Mail

Recently, our mailing industry has spent a lot of time thinking further about the continued strength of “Do Not Mail” legislation. Our company also sponsored a survey conducted by the respected industry publication DM News.

The findings are quite interesting:

  • To the degree that “Do Not Mail” proponents have cited environmental arguments, they have successfully left with the public a number of misimpressions about mail’s environmental impact, all of which grossly exaggerates mail’s negative environmental impact:
  • While mail constitutes about 2% of solid waste in landfills, the public believes it constitutes over 33%.
  • Similarly, the whole issue of the cutting of trees to produce pulp and paper has been wildly misunderstood. The practice of cutting and harvesting older trees and replacing them with new plantings, usually accounts for very little negative environmental impact.
  • The public correctly understands that poorly addressed and poorly targeted mail is wasteful. As a Company, Pitney Bowes has been passionate about selling solutions to reduce the production and delivery of wasteful mail, so I could not agree more with this perception.
  • The public wants more recycling of mail, as they should. Today, newspapers are recycled at a rate of about 77% of the newspapers bought and read by consumers, whereas mail is recycled at a rate of about 35%. This can be improved by having more robust recycling capability at the municipal level, as well as better waste mail collection systems.
  • The public correctly understands what some would call “junk mail” is not only of low value to them, but of low value and offensive to society as a whole. For example, mail that contains content aggressively selling credit cards and home mortgages is now at the top of the list of the mail considered to be “junk” by approximately 90% of those surveyed. The public correctly understands that when vendors use high-pressure tactics to sell services or products to vulnerable populations, like people with poor credit histories, those vendors are demeaning not only the services and products they sell, but mail as a medium. Policing deceptive content or content that is inappropriate for a particular recipient, such as the prohibition of pornography being sent to children, are critical to staving off “Do not mail” legislation, because this is the kind of content that makes voters more likely to demand legislation which has a significant risk of being over-reaching.

Three other observations:

  • Members of the public who support “Do Not Mail” registries do not understand that the consequences are not comparable to what happened with the “Do Not Call” registry regulation. “Do Not Call” registries had no noticeable effect on the cost of a telephone call because outbound telephone solicitations are a tiny part of the total telephone message stream. On the other hand, if we saw a significant part of the advertising mail stream disappear, the price of postage would skyrocket and have other bad consequences:
  • Non-profits and businesses that depend on the mail for attracting donors or customers would see their costs skyrocket by 20-25%, and would lose some of their donor or customer base. Ted Grigg reviews how direct mail is still the core medium for fundraisers in his direct marketing blog.
  • Many small businesses that depend on the mail either to attract customers or to ship packages would have great difficulty surviving.
  • Many popular magazines would no longer be published.
  • Libraries and bookstores that ship books to us would be paying a lot more to get them to us.
  • There continues to be no public comprehension that, to the degree that mail substitutes for a trip in an automobile, it is environmentally positive. There are groups that want to reduce consumption and change our well-established consumption habits. I do not think they have much chance of succeeding. If we eliminate direct mail as a trigger for consumption, consumers will find another way to acquire what was presented to them through direct mail. What we most need to do is find ways of making mail as a communications, marketing, and delivery medium as environmentally friendly as it can be. This Print CEO blog post reviews how the printing and publishing industry is moving toward the use of recycled paper and other methods to reduce its environmental impact.
  • Finally, no one thinks about the relative environmental merits of electronic communications media. I think that the public tends to ignore the negative environmental impacts of electronic communication either because they have never seen the data centers used to store and transfer electronic messages or mistakenly believe that additional electronic messages do not require additional computer hardware. The impact is highlighted in this TechRepublic blog post. Not surprisingly, companies dependent on electronic messaging are not regularly broadcasting the impact of data centers on the environment. We must do a better job of educating the public on this subject.

My fundamental observation is that many actions taken for environmental reasons end up having unintended negative environmental consequences, such as the substitution of electronic communications for mail.

At the same time, this survey indicates that, although the consumers responding to the survey may have gotten the environmental arguments wrong, their opinions about what is valuable about mail and what is inappropriate are right on target, and we ignore those opinions at our peril.